The Grammarphobia Blog

Neologisms: winners and losers

Q: In your posting about “serendipity,” one of my favorite words, you say it was coined by Horace Walpole, an 18th-century man of letters. Did he come up with any other goodies?

A. Walpole (the 4th Earl of Orford) invented lots of new words, but his one big success as a neologist may have been an example of serendipity, a happy accident.

He also invented his share of duds, like “muckibus” (drunkenly sentimental), “greenth” (green vegetation), and “nabobical” (nabob-like). Mercifully, they died with him.

We’ve talked about presidential neologisms on the blog, but this gives us a chance to make a point about literary neologisms in general. Not every one is a winner.

For every “serendipity,” there’s a “melophonist,” an invention by William Makepeace Thackeray that didn’t make the cut. (It meant a singer.)

When people talk about neologisms, they always focus on the success stories. But nobody talks about the losers.

Take Shakespeare, for instance. He cranked out a veritable assembly line of neologisms, from the prosaic to the sublime.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with 1,626 new words and phrases, and it would be hard to speak or write without using some Shakespearean neologism:

“amazing,” “awesome,” “beguiling,” “bow-wow,” “courtship,” “dawn,” “deafening,” “dwindle,” “educate,” “employer,” “eyeball,” “shooting star,” “upstairs” … you get the idea.

But even Shakespeare had his off days.

Few of us have heard—much less used—“lewdster” (a lewd person), “pudency” (bashfulness), “sprag” (clever), “acture” (taking action), “credent” (trusting), “immoment” (trifling), “shunless” (unavoidable), or “fustilarian” (a fat, frowzy woman).

Charles Dickens, too, was wildly inventive, and had his share of winners: “devil-may-care,” “sawbones” (for a doctor), “butter-fingers,” “boredom,” “rampage,” “flummox,” “tousled,” “kibosh” (as in “put the kibosh on”), “footlights,” and “dust-bin,” which is still the usual British term for a garbage can.

Yet he also came up with some clunkers, like “metropolitaneously” (in city-like fashion), “participled” (confounded), “ponging” (declaiming theatrically), and “pruney” (prim or affected).

It’s a shame that “pruney” didn’t survive. It had so much going for it—terse, evocative, exquisitely Dickensian—yet for some reason it was consigned to history’s dust-bin.

You might say that every word was a neologism once upon a time. Even “once upon a time” had to be introduced by somebody, and it was—by no less than Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages.

The OED defines a neologism as a word or phrase that’s “newly coined” or “new to the language.” And a neologist is “a person who coins or uses new words or phrases.”

So someone doesn’t have to invent a word out of the blue to be a neologist—just use it in writing before anybody else does.

In other words, our literary neologists didn’t necessarily cook up those new words. They just kept their ears open. Some of the words they recorded were immortal, some weren’t. We confess that we have a soft spot for the mortal ones.

If there’s ever a dictionary of failed literary neologisms, we’d like to nominate a few more candidates.

Let’s not forget John Milton’s “goosery” (silliness), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “pedoeuvre” (an action performed by the feet), Anthony Trollope’s “elsewards” (toward some other place), James Joyce’s “pelurious” (hairy), P. G. Wodehouse’s “oojah-cum-spiff” (all right). And finally, Graham Greene’s euphemism for a public toilet, “urinoir.”

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