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8 Words Authors Invented

October 20, 2013  |  3:18pm
8 Words Authors Invented

Actually writing a book isn’t a very cool way to spend your time—it involves a lot of coffee and loneliness—but all the credibility that comes with having written a book may just make it worth it. One perk of publication? The words you make up are much more likely to stick around and, eventually, make it into the dictionary. Here are eight examples of words authors made up—whether out of laziness, drunkenness, or precision we’ll never know.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien: “Tween”
Tolkien, who made a hobby out of creating words, originally coined the term “tween” to refer to twenty-something Hobbits, who were not considered to be of age until 33. Since then it has become a label for that awkward stage between childhood and the teenage years, shifting from the author’s original combination of twenty teen to a combination of teen between. These days it probably brings to mind a brace-faced 11-year-old squealing over One Direction. But who knows—the word might eventually revert back to its original usage as the average human’s coming of age seems to be getting closer and closer to 33.

2. Dr. Seuss: “Nerd”
Half the words in any given Dr. Seuss book are made up, but “zizzer-zazzer-zuzz” apparently doesn’t have the staying power of “nerd.” In his 1950 children’s book If I Ran the Zoo, a nerd is one of the creatures the narrator wants to collect for his imaginary zoo (along with a “nerkle” and “seersucker”). Dr. Seuss offered no definition of his term, but it has just the right sound for the smart but socially inept person it has come to describe. The word didn’t take off until it was used as a favorite insult in the 1970s sitcom Happy Days.

3. William Shakespeare: “Alligator”
Though scholars hotly debate the actual number, the bard is generally credited with inventing almost 2,000 words. Among them: leapfrog, bump, and eyeballs. Though it probably derived from the Spanish term “el lagarto,” the word “alligator” first appeared in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. As much as we all appreciate the addition of “bump” to our lexicon, I can’t help but wonder: Wouldn’t we have been just fine with only one term describing 800-pound, scaly reptiles? Not sure if we should thank him for a lifetime of needing to know the difference between an alligator and a crocodile (doesn’t one of them have a worse under bite?).

4. Lewis Carroll: “Chortle”
Carroll’s imagination wasn’t just good for dreaming up Tweedle Dee and the Cheshire Cat; he also imagined a few words while penning Alice’s adventures. One of them, “chortle,” is a mash-up of chuckle and snort, used in his nonsense poem “Jabberwocky.” Where would be without the perfect word to describe that thing your overweight uncle does at the dinner table after one too many scotches-on-the-rocks? Another nonsense word from the poem that seems to have gained recent momentum: “frabjous.”

5. Jonathan Swift: “Yahoo”
Long before it was a second-rate search engine, a Yahoo was a make-believe species in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Though they closely resemble human beings in Swift’s legend, Gulliver despises the Yahoos’ savage and materialistic tendencies. He prefers the company of Houyhnhnms, but since it’s practically impossible to spell, that word didn’t become the name of a multinational Internet corporation. Today the word “yahoo” may refer to a barbarian or oaf, or it may be used as the exclamation everyone writes but no one actually says.

6. Horace Walpole: “Serendipity”
Back in 1754, Walpole wrote a letter to a friend in which he explained that he invented the word “serendipity.” He used it, he said, to refer to the happy accidents of the heroes of a Persian fairy tale set in a place called Serendip. Of course Walpole never guessed his letter would become public and the made-up word would subsequently title both a John Cusack film and a restaurant in Vegas. Careful – if you become famous, future scholars may end up scrolling through your texts and crediting you with all the words you “invented” in your notes to friends (you know, the ones that were really just autocorrects).

7. Sir Thomas More: “Utopia”
English author More couldn’t have known that the title he created for his book Utopia in 1516 would become part of American vocabulary. Confusion remains over whether More meant to describe an impossibly perfect society or whether he meant to propose an actual ideal society (depending on whether you translate the word “no place” or “good place”). The concept of utopia proved unattainable for More, at least; he was decapitated by the King of England for supposed treason. And it gets worse—almost 500 years later, Coca-Cola co-opted his term to label their new brand Fruitopia, the much-hyped drink of the 1990s. Poor guy—somehow I doubt he would have been able to see the relationship between his ideal island nation and a neon can of high fructose corn syrup.

8. Francois Rabelais: “Gargantuan”
It might be hard to imagine that this synonym for “gigantic” has been around since Rabelais used it to name the mythical giant in his 1596 satirical novel. These days it’s more likely to refer to a burrito than a monstrous creature, but this isn’t entirely off the mark. The original Gargantua was a large-mouthed brute known for his voracious (and terrifying) appetite. Gargantuan has been around for hundreds of years, but a similar word, “ginormous,” was added to the dictionary only recently in 2007.

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