Words We Wouldn’t Have Without Books

Blatant

It’s no surprise that authors are renowned for coining new terms—Shakespeare alone contributed hundreds of words and phrases to the English language. The Bard of Avon's coinages remind us that so many of our words are created not by ruler-bearing grammarians, but by creative thinkers who build beautiful worlds—and words—for us to relish.

Take our first word, blatant, coined in 1596 by the poet Edmund Spenser for “The Faerie Queen.” Where would we be without this ‘bursting’ word to underscore a bald-faced lie?Venture ahead to savor more surprising words that famous writers dreamed up for us. Without them, our language would be lacking!

Blurb

Blurb is the best onomatopoeic word for that zippy write-up that succinctly scintillates on a book’s cover, compelling us to read “the year’s best!” Blurb was coined in 1907 by the humorist Gelett Burgess. In those days, book covers always included the picture of a gorgeous gal in various postures of flirtation or frailty. Burgess named his buxom babe “Miss Blinda Blurb.” 

The creeps

With over 250 coined words cited in the OED, Charles Dickens ranks 6th on the ‘number of English words coined by an individual author’ list (Shakespeare’s #1 of course). We like the creeps, or at least the term, because it has a contemporary feel. Dickens coined this it in 1850 for David Copperfield. He was probably influenced by the word creepy, which crept up in 1831 to denote a cold, slinking sensation of fear.

Chintzy

Think Aunt Mable’s doily-littered living room. Probably painted gold. The look is gaudy, outdated, and cheap. Let’s thank George Eliot for this term—but not the look! The author of Middlemarch took chintz (a kind of fabric used for drapes), added a -y, and BAM Aunt Mable’s cabinet of teacups and kewpie dolls had a perfect descriptor. We’d love to get rid all things chintzy, but then we wouldn’t have the word anymore. We’re at an impasse with this one: is cheap worth it?

Gremlin

Roald Dahl didn’t invent the word gremlin, but he popularized it in 1942 with his first children’s book, The Gremlins. Dahl had been in the British Royal Air Force (RAF), which is where he first heard the word. Gremlin was a slang term tossed around by pilots and technicians to describe the imaginary creatures they blamed for mysterious breakdowns and equipment failures.

Intensify

We're thinking the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was influenced by laudanum (opium-laced alcohol) when he coined intensify. He was a notorious addict. Coleridge wrote his famous Kubla Khan after a drug-induced dream in which he saw "caves of ice," "pleasure-domes", a "woman wailing for her demon-lover,"--oh, and he heard voices predicting war and chaos. Definitely intense! So intense that he needed a word for "make (even) more intense."

Newspeak

With each passing day, it feels like author George Orwell may have been eerily more prophetic than we gave him credit for in high school English. Newspeak is just one of the terms Orwell coined for his dystopian novel 1984Now, the term has real-world applications, describing quasi-official language that claims neutrality but serves a political or ideological agenda. Newspeak is also a great word to wield when politicians speak in such tongue-tied jargon, it’s impossible to understand them. 

Pandemonium

Whenever you’re in the presence of sensitive ears that would blush at the sound of “hell,” use pandemonium instead. We kind of like “What the panda” (let them think you’re talking vegetarian bears). When writing about the fiery locale, use the capital P because Pandemonium was the capital of “Satan and his Peers” in John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Pedestrian

Impossibly, this word wasn’t used in Ancient Rome as some of us word nerds thought. (Leave it to the Latin root ped, “foot,” to fool us). Even Milton didn’t have pedestrians walking barefoot on hot coals in Pandemonium. No, pedestrian, “a traveler on foot” was coined in 1791 by William Wordsworth, whose poetic pedestrians “wandered lonely as a cloud” seeking a “host of golden daffodils.” Beautiful imagery, and oddly ironic given that pedestrian also means “lacking vitality and imagination.”

Robot

The word robot was coined by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in 1920. He introduced it in his play “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” Čapek chose the Czech word robota, meaning “servitude of forced labor,” for the slave-machines in his play. Funny enough, Čapek first considered using labori instead of roboti but he thought it sounded too bookish. We agree it suggests the wrong genre. I, Labori sounds like the opening to a chest-pounding Roman oration.

Scaredy-cat

Dorothy Parker introduced scaredy-cat in her 1933 short story “The Waltz.” In it, a woman is basically talking to herself about how to answer an awkward man’s invitation to dance. She knows she's supposed to, but...well you'll see. One of the replies-in-her-head:  “Oh yes, do let’s dance together—it’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t a scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri.” At first, you think the woman is accepting the invitation (is beri-beri a hat? A swing dance move?). Look up beri-beri, and you’ll learn it’s a disease resulting in paralysis of the limbs, “severe emaciation, and swelling of the body.” This lady would rather sit on scorching flames in Pandemonium than dance. Dude, get a hint!

Sensuous

Sensuous isn’t about sex, people! That’s more of sensual’s role (with the “carnal” pleasures of the flesh). But sensual wasn’t always sexy; it was originally about the senses. Over time, English-speakers have been steaming up the meaning. To such an extent, apparently, that John Milton (of Pandemonium fame) coined sensuous in an effort to create an asexual word that brings us back to our five senses. Unfortunately, sensuous, too, has fallen prey to the lusty, but we’ve tried to clear the steam a little bit here.

Superman

It’s a bird, it’s a plane…it’s a word coined by George Bernard Shaw in 1903! Granted, Shaw had a lot of help. He was merely translating Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch (“a highly evolved human being who transcends good and evil”). And even Nietzsche’s use was influenced by centuries-earlier German writers. Superman didn’t dress up in red and blue spandex until 1938, the year the popular super hero comic strip was released. Had Shaw not given us superman, the “champion of the oppressed” could have been named Overman or Beyond-Man. Those were the feeble translations of übermensch that Shaw was up against, which is why he’s our superhero.  

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