For the Visual Thesaurus this month, I reviewed a new book by Ralph Keyes, The Hidden History of Coined Words. (The publisher, Oxford University Press, sent me a review copy.)
I’ve been known to coin a few words myself, for business (as a name developer) and pleasure (as a lover of playful language). So it was a delight to discover the stories behind some famous madeupical words—googol, snark, discombobulate, robotics—and some not-so-famous duds.
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers for three months. Here’s an excerpt:
Committees, you will probably not be surprised to learn, are not reliable laboratories for word-invention. But even brilliant solo practitioners have struck out more than they’ve homered. John Milton, the 17th-century poet, is credited with adding more than 600 words to the English language, including advantage, damp, fragrance, jubilant, and padlock; but he also had many nonstarters, such as opiniastrous (opinionated) and intervolve (to involve with one another). Roald Dahl invented many memorable terms, including Oompa Loompa and scrumdiddlyuptious, as well as many more forgettable ones, including chiddler (child), sogmire (quagmire), and frobscottle (“a fizzy drink whose bubbles fall rather than rise”).
“As prolific word coiners … routinely discover,” Keyes writes, “deliberately creating a new term in hopes that others will adopt it is generally an unfruitful way to refresh our language.” He quotes the linguist Barbara Wallraff: “We can make words up; we can love the words we make up; we can feel, well, that really nailed it; but we can't make them enter the language.”