Writers Sometimes Make Up a New Word—From Cheesecake to Whodunit, Here Are Some of the Best

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 1.52.05 PMBy Jack Limpert

Paul Dickson loves words—he’s written 12 books described as lexical works, ranging from a baseball dictionary to the language used by  drunks and members of Congress. His latest, Authorisms, is about the wonderful words and phases coined by writers.

Many of the writers cited are authors of books (Oliver Wendell Holmes came up with brouhaha, Willa Cather with stuffed shirt) but lots of good ones came from journalists.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen was the first to use beatnik, book critic David Gordon came up with whodunit, and egghead is credited to Chicago newspapermen who used it to refer to highbrow editorial writers out of touch with the common man. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, editor  of the Tulsa Tribune, was describing “the journalistic practice of concentrating on problems in distant parts of the world while ignoring controversial local issues.” He called it Afghanistanism, true many years ago.

Tom Wolfe, writing in New York magazine, came up with radical chic, and Time magazine in 1934 first used cheesecake. James Thurber, in the Saturday Evening Post, wrote, “He bad-mouthed everybody.” Brainwashing first appeared in a dispatch written by Edward Hunter for the Miami Daily News. Syndicated columnist Dave Barry came up with Stud Muffin: “Term for a sexually attractive male often used with a trace of derogation.”

Sportswriter Caswell Adams, writing about college football teams in the east, first called them the colleges of the Ivy League. And slam dunk was coined by broadcaster Chick Hearn while describing Los Angles Lakers  basketball games.

An example of one of the many entertaining entries:

Catbird Seat. A position of control and mastery, often stated as “sitting in the catbird seat.” The term was popularized in the 1940s by American baseball broadcaster and journalist Red Barber (1908-1992), who would use it, for example, to describe a batter with a count of three balls and no strikes, or a pitcher with a big lead. The term has long been attributed to Barber: even though he denied having created it, he explained how he once “bought” it. In his 1968 biography Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat, Barber tells the story of playing penny ante poker in Cincinnati with friends, and sitting for hours unable to win a hand. Then he related, “Finally, during a round of seven-card stud, I decided I was going to force the issue. I raised on the first bet, and I raised again on every card. At the end, when the showdown came, it was between a fellow named Frank Cope and me. Frank turned over his hold cards, showed a pair of aces, and won the pot. He said, ‘Thank you, Red. I had those aces from the start. I was sitting in the catbird seat.’ I didn’t have to be told the meaning. And I had paid for it. It was mine.”

Lots of great words and phrases and lots of fun to read.

P.S. to Paul Dickson: On the subject of sports words and phrases, how about cheap shot—that come from a writer or a broadcaster? And one of the great golf words is sandbagger—someone who plays much better than his alleged handicap, thereby winning lots of money. I’ll bet that came from one of those clever Brit writers.

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