Every word conceals a story, a secret history. Behind the syllables we use every day lurk countless forgotten tales. “If you know the origin of a word”, the 6th Century scholar Isidore of Seville insisted, “everything can be more clearly comprehended”. While most words slip into currency inconspicuously and without leaving traceable trails of their journeys, there is an elite class of verbal inventions whose exact dates of initial utterance have indeed been carefully recorded.
Some of these words are the one-off brainchildren of individuals who have long faded into the fog of history. Others are the concoctions of cultural pioneers who deliberately set out to shape the way future generations think and speak. In every instance what is remarkable is how the unlocking of a word’s biography helps us unlock both the biography of the individual who coined it as well as the age in which he or she lived. What follows are eight intriguing coinages that have altered the way we think about, see, hear, discover, and exist in the world around us:
Social media would certainly be a less cheerful place without Twitter’s chirpy logo: that powder-blue profile of a floating bird forever frozen in mid warble. But who first had the phonic imagination to fashion an onomatopoetic compromise between the language of feathers and the language of men? ‘Twitter’ (or ‘twiterith’ as it was initially crafted in the second half of the 14th century), first trilled from the quill of Geoffrey Chaucer in his translation of Consolation of Philosophyby the 6th Century philosopher Boethius. Predating both ‘chirp’ and ‘warble’ by a century, ‘twitter’ is one of over 2,200 words for which the Medieval poet is credited with having inked an inaugural usage. That it’s the same author who wrote the poem The Parlement of Foules seems entirely appropriate.
Before 1754, if someone had wanted to express ‘the fortuitous discovery of something by chance’, he or she would have had to dip his or her nib more than a few times to eke out the full slog of such a cumbersome sentiment. Then presto, on Tuesday 28 January, the English writer Horace Walpole, while composing a letter, gifted to the world that rather peppy prance of syllables: ‘serendipity’. Walpole said he based his lyrical invention on a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, whose protagonists, he insisted, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity”. That Walpole misremembered the actual gist of the tale (in fact the princes fail to find what they were looking for despite painstaking attempts) hardly matters; ‘serendipity’ is here to stay – a happy accident indeed. It’s not Walpole’s only quirky coinage. ‘Betweenity’, a word far more charming than its better-known synonym, ‘intermediateness’, deserves the same affection that its sibiling ‘serendipity’ has enjoyed.
Some words seem to vibrate with the very spirit of the meaning they denote. “Panorama” is one of these; its very rhythm seems in harmony with the wide, mountain-top vistas, boundless horizons, and unblinkered breadth of vision for which it stands. That the word (which literally means ‘all-seeing’) should have entered the world’s lexicon around 1789, a year synonymous with the collapse of that notorious cultural enclosure, Paris’s prison-fortress the Bastille, seems entirely appropriate to panorama’s emancipating vibe. How ironic, then, to discover that the word was initially attached to an entirely confined experience: a cylindrical painting that imprisons its audience – an indoor visual contraption devised by the Irish artist Robert Barker.
It’s hard to believe that no one had ever ‘visualised’ anything before 1817, but that’s the year the Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the word in his philosophical confession Biographia Literaria (a full century before the word ‘envision’ was minted). In retrospect it seems fitting that a writer whose mind’s eye was haunted by such phantasmic visions as the spectral ship in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and by the “flashing eyes” and “floating hair” that unsettle the ending of his prophetic lyric Kubla Khan, should be the one to give a name to the seeing of the unseeable. Tortured throughout his life by both material and immaterial substances alike, Coleridge is unsurprisingly responsible for introducing into English other words for describing the darker aspects of experience, such as ‘psychosomatic’ and ‘pessimism’.
Coleridge is frequently given credit too for devising a related verb: to ‘intellectualise’, meaning to transform a physical object into a property of the mind. While he certainly deserves credit for coining a term that suggests the very opposite – the underused ‘thingify’ (which means to turn a thought into an object) – in fact ‘intellectualise’ probably belongs to an obscure contemporary and inspiration of the Romantic poet: a mysterious 18th-Century traveller known by the curious nickname ‘Walking Stewart’ for his celebrated feat of having wandered over a greater portion of the known world than anyone before him. In his decades of rambling over India, Africa and Europe, Stewart developed an eccentric philosophy that centred on the notion that mind and body were in constant flux between a world that is ceaselessly intellectualised and a spirit that is endlessly thingified.
The hobo narrator of Harry McClintock’s 1928 song Big Rock Candy Mountain dreams of reaching a carefree paradise where “they hung the jerk who invented work”. While history may not remember the name of that particular “jerk”, we do know who the identity of the French economist who invented a word for something almost as tiresome”: ‘bureaucracy’. In 1818, Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay tethered the French word for desk (bureau) to the Greek suffix that means ‘the power of’ (-cracy) and gave a name to the red tape that was beginning to strangle society. Having coined a word for the governmental processes that impose tedious rules on individual behaviour, Gournay might seem the last person we’d expect to give birth to a term that means “let people do as they think best”: laissez-faire.
Strange to think that some of the most seemingly stable names we attach to the objects around us were embraced only gradually and by a process of elimination. The English astronomer and inventor Sir John Herschel’s proposal of the word ‘photograph’ in 1839 had to see off rival coinages before becoming fixed permanently in the world’s vocabulary. Had history taken another path, your gran might be admonishing you for not sending enough ‘sun-prints’ or ‘photogenes’. One competitor, heliograph, which predated ‘photograph’ by a generation, gave Herschel’s suggestion a serious run for its money.
Men, needless to say, are not, as a gender, uniquely skilled at coining compelling words, however uncelebrated female neologists have been. With their contributions to culture frequently marginalised, is there any wonder that we find that the Oxford English Dictionary attributes to female writers the first usage of such words as ‘outsider’ (to Jane Austen in 1800) and ‘angst’ (imported from German by George Eliot in 1849). In our own age, it has once again fallen to a female novelist to define who is endowed with the powers of the initiated and those left wanting of wizardry ways. J K Rowling’s coining of ‘muggle’ in her 1997 book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to describe mortals bereft of supernatural skill, reminds of the perennial magic of words – those who have it and those who don’t.
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