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At times of crisis in the past, writers coined words to describe our lives. Kelly Grovier explores how words like ‘frustrating’, ‘spring-clean’ and ‘outsider’ came to be – and the ways we can reinvigorate our lexicon.
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We need new words. The strange and unsettling world in which we’re suddenly living no longer fits the fatigued syllables and worn-out language we had been using to describe our lives. Some of our old terms feel too clumsy and forced; they fail to capture the essence of our fear and grief – our eerie alienation from one another.

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In times past, when frustrating circumstances demanded new ways of expressing what it means to be alive, it was often female writers who sculpted the fresh coinages that kept language rippling with poignancy and power. The word ‘frustrating’ itself, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, makes its first appearance in print in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, where she presciently describes “the hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions, and their frustrating complexity”.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that it should have been women, who historically have all-too-well understood the paralysing parameters of enforced distancing (and not just social, but economic and political as well), who were compelled to fashion new words to cope with the feeling of being cut off from the pulse of life.

Taking as our inspiration such gifted wordsmiths as George Eliot and Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and Dorothy Wordsworth, perhaps we can distil some helpful principles – some New Rules, to do a Dua Lipa – for sculpting a vocabulary to describe the surreal realities that will surely come to define these tense and trying times.

Rule no 1: Get your ‘-ness’ on

The suffix ‘-ness’ can transform an otherwise unremarkable word into something stranger and more affectingly abstract. The adjective ‘dark’, for example, on its face is frank and factual, whereas ‘darkness’ is more movingly evocative and poetic. Dorothy Wordsworth understood that linguistic trick profoundly and exploited it to memorable effect when describing an uncanny walk she took with her brother, William, in Scotland in 1803, and in particular the misty sight of a little Gaelic boy hooting as dusk was “shutting in upon the huge avenue of mountains”.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

The soulful scene, Wordsworth said, magically contained “that visionariness which results from a communion with the unworldliness of nature”. It was the first time, according to the OED, that the words ‘visionariness’ and ‘unworldliness’ are known to have been used. Today, unnerving-nesses stack up around us: the unvisitedness of our parents and grandparents. The unembracedness of our friends. The egglessness of our pantries.

Rule no 2: You are what you ‘-r’

To demonstrate the profound depths of one’s connection with a place or feeling, simply fastening an ‘-r’ or an ‘-er’ to the end of a noun can confer a new existential title. No one remembers now who claimed for himself the broad domain of a ‘forest’ to become the original ‘forester’, or who it was that first bestowed the modest grandeur of ‘dweller’ onto an inhabitant of a simple ‘dwelling’. But as far as we are aware, it was Jane Austen who, in a letter she wrote in 1800, seized upon the alienness of a group of random gamblers who had gathered around a casino table, none belonging to the place itself and all having come from an undefined ‘outside’, to christen all such future strangers as ‘outsiders’.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Such sympathy with social misfits was characteristic of Austen’s generous spirit. Sixteen years later, while writing her novel Emma, she turned the word ‘sympathy’ into ‘sympathiser’ – the first recorded use of that word. Who knows how the irrepressible Austen (as it happens, she introduced the word ‘irrepressible’ too, in 1811, when writing her novel Sense and Sensibility) would have described the congregants of our bizarre new world: Zoomers and Couchers? Thresholders and Rainbowers? We do know what she would likely have made of conspiratorial theories for the virus’s origins peddled by charlatans – ‘pseudophilosophy’, a word she is credited with coining in her unfinished novel Sanditon, on which she was working when she died, aged 41, in 1817.

Rule no. 3: Join the Hyphen Nation

Another way to reinvigorate a lacklustre lexicon is to pull together words that have never been tethered before – a little like constructing an impromptu meal from random reached-for tins dragged to light from the fumbled darkness of a kitchen cupboard. (Chutney pasta anyone? Anyone?) Charlotte Brontë was a genius of such curiously compelling compounds. To her it is likely we owe the origin of ‘self-doubt’ and ‘Wild-West’ as well as that activity to which many of us have found ourselves suddenly engaging with obsessive vigour: ‘spring-clean’, which Brontë niftily neologised in a letter she wrote in April 1848.

(Credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

Rule no. 4: The Wisdoms of ‘-isms’

There is no quicker way to elevate a word into grandiloquence than to stick on to the end of it the suffix ‘-ism’, three small letters that can canonise seemingly throwaway syllables and transport them into the realm of respectable doctrine, system, or movement. The novelist George Eliot (she who fashioned ‘frustrating’ for us) is also credited with formulating, in a letter she wrote in 1885, something rather less negative in its outlook and attitude: the term ‘meliorism’, or the belief that the world’s suffering is healable if we all work together for that end. To get us out of our infectiously fatiguing covidism, or the dread that viral isolation will go on endlessly, perhaps we need to do another Dua Lipa of faith and practise her cleverly coined ‘Future Nostalgism’ instead? We can meet together in a great disco of the mind, fuelled by the conviction that one day, in the not-too-distant future, that beautiful, fragile, craved-for togetherism we all so desperately miss, will resume again for real.

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