Take my word for it – Part 2

In my last blog post (which was quite a long time ago, sorry), I gave you six everyday words that were originally coined by authors. As promised, and definitely not because I’ve run out of ideas, here are five more.

Nerd: Dr Seuss

Originally an insult, but now generally rebranded as something to wear with pride (I’m a total word nerd), ‘nerd’ first appeared in print in 1950 in If I Ran the Zoo by Dr Seuss. The main character is a boy called Gerald who decides that normal zoos are boring, and if he owned a zoo he’d: ‘…sail to Ka-Troo, And bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, A NERKLE, a NERD, and SEERSUCKER, too!’ I don’t know what any of those things are, but I’d definitely go to that zoo.

Two alternative spellings, ‘nurd’ and, my personal favourite, ‘gnurd’ (who doesn’t love an entirely pointless silent ‘g’?) appeared in the mid-60s. Some people say these are derived from ‘knurd’ which American college students used to describe those weirdos who went to university to study stuff, instead of partying. Because it’s ‘drunk’ spelled backwards, see? Sadly both ‘nurd’ and ‘gnurd’ seem to have died a death since then though.

Dr Seuss’ real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel and he wasn’t actually a doctor (shock horror). Interesting fact alert: Geisel worked for the US Air Force producing various propaganda and training films, including one about a rubbish solider with the excellent name of Private Snafu (army slang for ‘situation normal: all fucked up’).

Pandemonium: John Milton

In his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton named a palace in the middle of Hell ‘Pandæmonium’. We’ve switched the ligature (i.e. the æ – see my previous post on other letters of the alphabet that we don’t use anymore – more interesting than it sounds, honest) for an ‘e’ in the modern version, and it’s come to mean general non-Hell related chaos. ‘Pandæmonium’ is a portmanteau (a fancy term for when we squidge two words together) of ‘pan’, as in ‘all’ (like pansexual – literally the only example I could think of), and (you’ve guessed it) ‘dæmonium’ which is Latin for ‘evil spirit’. Here it is in action: 

‘A solemn Councel forthwith to be held At Pandæmonium, the high Capital of Satan and his Peers.’

Milton gets the gold medal for inventing words (or neology if we’re being fancy). He’s actually credited with more new words, sorry neologisms, than Shakespeare or Dickens. Some of the others he came up with include ‘lovelorn’, ‘enjoyable’ and ‘fragrance’.

Robot: Karel Čapek

Czech writer Karel Čapek (nope, me neither) gets the credit for this in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), published in the early 1920s. The play tells the tale of a factory which makes artificial people designed to work for humans. It was actually his brother Josef who suggested the term – Karel said he was originally going to call them ‘labori’ (for obvious reasons). Eventually the robots turn on their masters and wipe out the human race. So it’s basically Ye Olde Terminator.

Neither of the Čapek bros actually invented the word ‘robot’ though. It’s derived from a Czech term, ‘robota’ which basically means ‘forced labour’.

The BBC adapted Čapek’s play in 1938, making it the first piece of television sci-fi ever broadcast. Take that Doctor Who.

Oh, and prolific sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov later added a whole three letters to ‘robot’ to come up with ‘robotics’, which doesn’t seem that impressive to me, but whatevs.

Serendipity: Horace Walpole

Serendipity means an unplanned, fortunate discovery. It’s a lovely word which has been forever ruined for me by a terrible film starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale (although I can forgive Becks for anything as she’s so hilarious on Instagram). Serendipity (the word, not the bad film) was invented by writer and politician Horace Walpole in a letter he wrote to another man also called Horace in 1754. In it he explains how he came across a lost painting. He refers to this as ‘serendipity’ after a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip (Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka). In the story the three princes were on the hunt for a lost camel (we’ve all been there) and ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. Sounds awesome.

Scientist: The Reverend William Whewell

The word ‘scientist’ didn’t exist before 1840, which is nuts, because science definitely did. (I actually looked at more than one internet site to make sure this is really true, and it really is. Promise.) Before this, people what did science were called ‘philosophers’.

The Reverend William Whewell first used the term in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (sounds riveting) where he said (and I’m trying really hard not to be cross about the male pronoun because olden times):

‘We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a scientist.’