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Oliver Tearle


20 Essential Words We Got From Literature

Posted: 10/02/2013 5:45 pm

Often you hear, fifth-hand, someone say, "Shakespeare gave us the word puking" or "Milton coined the word dreary." The problem with this is, of course, we cannot be sure that those writers actually invented these words -- they may merely have written the texts containing the earliest surviving record of the words in question. (Or, there may be earlier uses of the words out there, waiting to be discovered; it's just that more lexicographers and philologists are rereading As You Like It than are reading "A Treatise on Vomiting and Related Emettic Excurssions, 1588.") Shakespeare may have been the first one to think of putting "leap" and "frog" together to form "leapfrog"; but wouldn't his audience have wondered what the bally hell he was blathering on about? So, here are 20 words which we can say, with some certainty, originated in works of literature. Enjoy.

1. Blatant. Used by Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99) in his epic poem "The Faerie Queene," this word originally referred to a thousand-tongued beast. Since then it has come to mean something that is glaringly obvious and in-your-face, like an elephant in the room (to use another idiom involving a large animal).

2. Chortle. Also known these days as the name of a comedy website, this word originated in Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky," which was included in the 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass. The word is a blend of "chuckle" and "snort," describing the noise made by somebody who manages to laugh while utilizing their nose in the process. This sort of word-formation (which also gives us brunch and motel, not to mention chillax) is sometimes known as a...

3. Portmanteau. Also from Through the Looking-Glass, this term refers to the process of blending two existing words together to form a new word (e.g. "bromance," to proffer another recent coinage). As Humpty-Dumpty explains to Alice, "You see, it's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed into one word." "Portmanteau word" is a term sometimes used by professional linguists, although "blend" is more common. A portmanteau is a bag that opens into two halves -- hence Humpty's use of the term -- that was used in the 19th century, often to carry clothes ("portmanteau" comes from the French meaning "carry the cloak").

4. Galumph. Also from -- you guessed it -- Through the Looking-Glass, and also -- right again! -- a portmanteau word. This time the word refers to the Jabberwock of the poem's title (the beast is the Jabberwock, the poem "Jabberwocky"), describing its movement ("galumphing" being a blend of "gallop" and "triumph"). One final little titbit about Carroll's book: it was "first published" in both 1871 and 1872. This is weird but true: it appeared in 1871, but it was postdated to 1872, and this means that you can claim it was technically published in either year (depending on your interpretation of that word "technically"). The same fate would befall Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1899/1900).

5. Airy-fairy. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92) may have gone on to become one of the greatest poets of the Victorian age -- he was Poet Laureate for a record 42 years -- but his early poetry met with mixed reviews. One early review borrowed a phrase invented by Tennyson in his poem "Lilian" and used it as a derogatory expression to describe Alfred's own verse: the opening lines of the poem, "Airy fairy Lilian..." provided the critic with the wishy-washiness of "airy-fairy" and the phrase hasn't looked back since. And while we're on that...

6. Namby-pamby. From the poet Ambrose Philips (1674-1749), writer of rather wet, babyish verses which he dedicated to his friends' and patrons' infant children. Philips's poetry earned some praise, but his fellow writers -- notably Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift -- lost no opportunity to ridicule Philips for his childish doggerel. Another poet, Henry Carey, wrote a scathing verse about Philips, describing him as "Namby Pamby" in a poem of 1725 (from "Amby," childish form of "Ambrose"). Since then, anything a bit wet and weak-willed and infantile has been branded "namby-pamby." Poor Ambrose!

7. Utopia. Coined by Sir Thomas More -- the statesman whom Henry VIII later had executed -- this word was first used as the name for More's fictional island in his 1516 book, Utopia. In this book, which More wrote in Latin, he outlines the ideal society, though his suggestions are to be taken with a pinch of salt. The word "utopia" has since become used to describe any ideal world. The word is from the Greek u-topos meaning "no place" (with a pun on eu-topos, "good place").

8. Thoughtcrime. A useful word thought up by George Orwell for his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The idea that you can be convicted for even thinking of committing a crime -- which is itself threatened in the "Ten Commandments" -- is one which Orwell, scourge of totalitarianism, loathed and sought to depict through the figure of Big Brother. As Hamlet says, "Who shall 'scape whipping?"

9. Pandemonium. Okay, so this one is from Milton, from his great epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). But given the specific way this word was formed, we can be pretty sure it was an original coinage dreamt up by Milton himself. Meaning literally "all demons," Pandemonium was Satan's capital city in Milton's poem. Since then, and given its connotations of chaos and evil, the word has come to mean any disordered confusion, but it retains its demonic glint in the word "pandemonium." We just don't hear it any more.

10. Yahoo! Known as a homepage, mailing service, and search engine on that there interweb, "yahoo" started life as the name for a race of brutish humans in Jonathan Swift's celebrated fantasy satire Gulliver's Travels (1726). From there, it went on to refer to any hooligan or noisy, loutish individual, and is these days perhaps most commonly encountered with ".com" after it. Cheers, Jonny Swift. Nice word.

11. Nerd. From a 1950 book by Dr Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo. In the poem, a nerd is one of the imaginary animals the narrator claims he will collect for his zoo. As a rough translation for "geek," the word entered popular use by the end of the 1950s.

12. Trilby. As in the hat. In 1895, George du Maurier -- grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier -- published his novel Trilby, about bohemian Paris in the 1850s. The most famous characters in the novel are Trilby -- the heroine -- and Svengali, the magician and hypnotist. From this novel we got the name for the trilby hat (which was first worn in the stage productions of the novel, but doesn't feature in the novel itself) and the term "svengali," meaning a person who controls or manipulates another.

13. Mentor. This one is from ancient Greece, and the work of Homer -- specifically, The Odyssey, the epic poem which recounts the adventures of Odysseus (so this same work also gives us the word "odyssey," meaning an adventure). Odysseus took 10 years to get home from the Trojan Wars, because of many mishaps and digressions (we'd heartily recommend reading this poem, which reads like an early fantasy novel and was used as the framework for one of the great novels of the 20th century, James Joyce's Ulysses). In Odysseus' absence, the character of Mentor advised Telemachus, Odysseus' son -- hence the modern connotation of the word of "mentor" as "adviser."

14. Stentorian. This is also from Homer, but this time, it's from his other epic poem, The Iliad. Stentor was a herald in the Greek army during the Trojan Wars, and had a loud, thundering voice. Consequently, he gave his name to the adjective "stentorian," meaning "loud and thundering" (of a voice). Simple, really. And a great word.

15. Malapropism. From Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals. The word "malapropos" is found in print from 1630 with the sense of "in an inopportune, inappropriate, or awkward manner," hence Mrs. Malaprop's name, and the meaning of "malapropism," namely the use of an incorrect word in place of a word of similar sound, e.g. "pineapple" for "pinnacle" in "He is the very pineapple of politeness." In 2005 the New Scientist reported an amusing literature-related example of someone uttering a malapropism in place of the word "malapropism" itself: an office worker had described a colleague as "a vast suppository of information" (instead of "repository"), and, upon learning his mistake, the worker is said to have apologized for his "Miss-Marple-ism" (instead of "malapropism"). Malapropisms are reasonably famous (or infamous), but what is less well known is that a malapropism is alternatively known as a "Dogberryism," after an earlier literary character with this characteristic: namely, Dogberry, the chief of police in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing and the one who (inadvertently) manages to resolve the confusion generated by villain Don John's evil scheme. "Dogberryism" is attested by the OED from 1836.

16. Syphilis. This word had its origin in a 1530 poem written by an Italian physician and poet, Girolamo Fracastoro. The poem recounts how Syphilus, a shepherd boy, is afflicted with the disease (which was commonly known at the time as "the French disease").

17. Pamphlet. Pamphlets have a long literary history, with Daniel Defoe being a prolific pamphleteer, but what most people probably aren't aware of is the fact that "pamphlet" is itself a word derived from a literary work: the word comes from a comic love poem dating from the 14th century and written in Latin. The poem, "Pamphilus; or, Concerning Love," somehow became associated with unbound booklets (we say "somehow," because the word's modern political connotations didn't emerge until the 17th century). The name Pamphilus is actually from the Greek meaning "friend of everyone" or "lover of all."

18. Gargantuan. This word, denoting something very large, is from French writer Rabelais' The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, a long work full of bawdy and scatological references written in the 16th century. Gargantua, in Rabelais' novel, is born calling for ale, and with an erection a yard long.

19. Serendipity. Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, coined the word "serendipity" in the 18th century. It means the "faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident." He coined the word in a letter of 1754, when recounting the "silly fairy tale" ("fairy tale" is another term he is credited with inventing) of "The Three Princes of Serendip" (Serendip being a former name for Sri Lanka). We have written about Walpole previously, and in more detail, here.

20. Robot. The word "robot" has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, called R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). The word is taken from the Czech for "drudge" or "slave." However, contrary to popular belief, Čapek did not coin the word. Or rather, Karel Čapek didn't. The playwright was searching for a word to call the androids which featured in his play and was dissatisfied with labori (from the Latin for "work"). He sought advice from his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov is credited with inventing the spin-off word "robotic" -- Asimov famously formulated the Three Laws of Robotics.

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