Take my word for it – Part 1

If you’re a regular reader (hello Dad!) then you’ll know that every week (mostly) I post a word of the week, where I write about a word’s backstory. This has led me down many an etymological rabbit hole on the internet. Sometimes a word will have its roots in ancient languages like Latin, Greek or Middle something-or-rather. Sometimes it’s come to us via someone’s name – like boycott or bowdlerise. And sometimes it’s just fallen out of some random writer’s brain onto a page, and somehow caught on.

So, this time around I thought I’d look into everyday (ish) words that authors created in their own writing, and that have since stuck around.

Butterfingers: Charles Dickens

Dickens first used the term ‘butterfingers’ in The Pickwick Papers.

‘At every bad attempt at a catch, and every failure to stop the ball, he launched his personal displeasure at the head of the devoted individual in such denunciations as “Ah, ah!”—“Stupid”—“Now, butter-fingers”—“Muff”— “Humbug”—and so forth.’

It’s no secret that Dickens came up with a lot of words. A couple of his other creations include ‘flummox’ and ‘to clap eyes on [something]’. He didn’t always hit the mark though – some of the terms that didn’t make the judges’ houses include ‘lummy’ (meaning ‘first rate’), ‘spoffish’ (used to describe someone who’s fussy) and ‘gonoph’ (another word for a pickpocket, which possibly didn’t catch on because it sounds like an STD).

Chortle: Lewis Carroll

‘Chortle’ is a portmanteau word, which means it’s two words smooshed together – in this case, ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’. Carroll came up with it in Alice Through the Looking-Glass:

‘“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” He chortled in his joy.’

Lots of the new words we get today are portmanteaus – think ‘bromance’, ‘hangry’ and ‘mansplaining’.

In a nice bit of head-fuckery, Carroll coined the term ‘portmanteau’ for these types of words, also in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Humpty Dumpty says:

‘“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’ and ‘mimsy’ is ‘flimsy and miserable’. You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.”’

‘Portmanteau’ itself is a portmanteau of two French words: porter (to carry) and manteau (a cloak).


Feminist: Alexandre Dumas Jr

Ironically (maybe? Much like Alanis Morissette, I’m never sure I understand irony), it was a man who came up with the word ‘feminist’. A French man in fact – Alexandre Dumas fils (not the one who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Musketeers – this is his less famous son, hence the ‘fils’). That’s all I’ve got I’m afraid – the internet is very vague about where he actually used it. And some of the articles say it was his dad who came up with it, which I imagine is the Dumas family’s fault for being so unimaginative with their naming conventions.

(Cards on the table, I also found an article which said ‘feminism’ was coined by a radical French philosopher called Charles Fourier. But as this blog post is about authors coining words, not radical French philosophers, I’m attributing it to Dumas. Because it’s my blog, m’kay?)

Gremlin: Roald Dahl

This one’s a slight cheat, as it wasn’t actually coined by Dahl – that honour belongs to the Royal Naval Air Service. But it was Dahl who popularised it in his first book, a children’s story called The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story, which was published in 1943. (And I refer you to my point above about this being my blog.)

In the story, gremlins are small creatures that cause mechanical problems in aeroplanes. RAF pilots had been using this as slang since the 1920s, and its earliest print appearance was in a poem published in 1929. There’s a theory that the term itself might come from an Old English word ‘gremian’ which means ‘to vex’.

In Dahl’s story (spoiler alert!), Gus, a fighter pilot and the main character, has his plane destroyed by gremlins. Eventually he convinces the gremlins to join forces with the Brits against the Nazis, and they end up repairing rather than sabotaging aircraft. And after they kick Hitler’s ass, they all live happily ever after.

Blatant: Edmund Spenser

Poet Edmund Spenser coined the word ‘blatant’ in his epic poem The Faerie Queene, which he wrote in 1596. He refers to a ‘blatant beast’ a few times (he obviously didn’t have access to a thesaurus – although even if he had it wouldn’t have been in there as he invented it, durr). The Faerie Queene is an allegorical poem where all the characters represent a quality, and in this case the blatant beast is a thousand-tongued monster, which represents slander.

Lots of authors copied Spenser and used the word ‘blatant’, although to mean different things – mainly to describe noisy people and things. It didn’t settle on its modern meaning (i.e. obvious or conspicuous) until the late 1880s.

No one’s quite clear where Spenser got it from – it might be he took it from the Scottish word ‘blatand’ for bleating, or the Latin word ‘blatīre’ which means ‘to babble’, both of which would fit with a super-chatty beast. Or praps it was just a typo (quill-o?) of one of these and we’re all making a big deal of nothing.

Bedazzled: William Shakespeare

Some sources say that Shakespeare came up with around 10,000 neologisms (which is just a poncy way of saying new words). Which would have made this blog post way too long. And scholars now think that most of these probably already existed – he was just the first person to write them down (obviously this assumes that you believe Shakespeare wrote the plays #conspiracy). He still gets the credit for around 1,700 though which is, y’know, pretty good going. Some of these include: assassination, belongings, eyesore, bandit and lonely.

I’ve gone for bedazzled here, purely because it’s where we get ‘vajazzled’ from. And I just wanted to make a connection between the bard and The Only Way is Essex. I bet somewhere in Stratford a literary skeleton is spinning in his grave…

Having said that, we actually owe our thanks (?) to the American actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, not the TOWIE crew, for coining the word ‘vajazzle’ on a US talk show in 2010.

Oh, I nearly forgot (I was distracted by genital decorations – two words which should never be put together, or Googled) – Shakespeare first used ‘bedazzle’ in The Taming of the Shrew. Katherine says:

‘Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes / That have been so bedazzled with the sun / That everything I look on seemeth green.’

The End

PS The keen eyed among you will have noticed that this is subtitled ‘Part 1’. That’s because there are loads more words like this, and I didn’t want to bore spoil you with too many. Read Part 2.