From Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss to Henry Fairlie, the Stories Behind Coined Words

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Henry Hitchings headlined “The Hidden History of Coined World”:

The children’s author Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss, was often asked where he drew inspiration for his verbal inventiveness. Surely there had to be some enchanted source for the words he dreamed up—the ones that caught on, notably “grinch,” and the ones that might pleasingly have done so, such as “punkerish” and “flubbulous.” He would solemnly reply that in August each year he traveled to have his cuckoo clock serviced in a tiny Alpine village called Uber Gletch. “I wander around and talk to people in the streets,” he explained. “They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them.”

Dr. Seuss is one of the heroes of “The Hidden History of Coined Words,” in which Ralph Keyes—the author of more than a dozen books, including “Euphemania” and “I Love It When You Talk Retro”—explores the byways of etymology. But, as this eloquent and instructive survey shows, the stories behind coinages are seldom so zany or romantic. Mr. Keyes makes clear how hard it is to create a word and get other people to adopt it—even if it has the virtues of brevity, vividness, a playful air and a memorable sound. Although new nouns, verbs and adjectives are forever coming into being, most make no impression. Some sparkle for a while, then fade from view.”. . .

The first person to refer to “coining” words seems to have been George Puttenham, a 16th-century English courtier. Although quite a coiner himself—“insect,” “predatory,” “indecency”—he was ambivalent about the habit. . . .Mark Twain was at pains to tell a correspondent that he’d never done it, though he conceded that he might have called attention to a few previously obscure terms. Theodore Roosevelt was relieved to think he bore no responsibility for any coinage. This from the man who minted “bully pulpit” and “lunatic fringe.”

Today it’s a different story. We prize the ability to give a phenomenon a catchy handle, and people’s coinages are regarded as part of their legacy. Take the New York Times obituaries of psychologists George Weinberg and Herbert Freudenberger, which even in their headlines identify the deceased as the coiners of important words: “homophobia” and “burnout,” respectively. But in many cases the person who takes credit for a word—or is awarded credit—isn’t the first to have used it. The term “emotional intelligence” wasn’t invented by Daniel Goleman, whose first book on the topic was so popular in the mid-1990s, and “tipping point” predates Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller of a few years later. . . .

One striking feature of Mr. Keyes’s “hidden history” is what he calls “coiner’s remorse.” Alan Greenspan wished he’d never spoken of “irrational exuberance,” and the physicist Thomas Kuhn rued introducing “paradigm shift,” which he was right to call “hopelessly overused.” The journalist Henry Fairlie came to be especially troubled by his one memorable coinage. He wasn’t the first person to use “the Establishment” to denote the members of society who wield power; that honor seems to belong to Emerson. But Fairlie was haunted by popularizing the word, which “diverted attention from what really needed to be changed to a nonexistent conspiracy.” His experience is cautionary: When we think up a word for something we’d like to curtail, or even just shepherd such a word into wider use, we risk adding luster or heft to it instead.

Henry Hitchings is the author of “The Secret Life of Words” and “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English.”

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