Is There a Word for That?

We have long invented language to fill gaps in our vocabulary, but not all coinages are created equal

Barney Google (King Features Syndicate, World Rights Reserved/Photoillustration by David Herbick)
Barney Google (King Features Syndicate, World Rights Reserved/Photoillustration by David Herbick)


Soon after they arrived in America, British settlers got busy with an important task: reinventing their language. This called for repurposing old words and coining new ones. Colonists called the plump, smelly rodents they encountered in swamps muske rats. Other forms of wildlife were named katydids, bobcats, catfish, and whippoorwills. To these settlers, sleigh improved on sledge, and the help reflected their values better than servants. “The new circumstances under which we are placed,” observed Thomas Jefferson, “call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”

“Necessity,” he concluded, “obliges us to neologize.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Jefferson is the first person known to have used the term neologize, in an 1813 letter. It is one of 110 words whose earliest use the OED credits to him. Others include indescribable, pedicure, and electioneer.

Once they caught wind of all the new words being coined across the Atlantic, self-appointed guardians of the King’s English were rather cross. When Jefferson used the new word belittle in his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia, a British critic exclaimed, “It may be an elegant [word] in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” Undaunted, the third president proceeded to coin Anglophobia. 

Contempt for the New World’s neologisms continued unabated in the old one. Historically, the British have looked upon American word inventions with all the enthusiasm of an art museum curator examining Elvis-on-velvet paintings. In a famous exchange with American lexicographer Noah Webster, an English naval officer named Basil Hall expressed dismay about the many new words he heard while visiting America in the late 1820s. Webster defended the verbal creativity of his countrymen. If a new word proved useful, he asked, why not add it to the vocabulary? “Because there are words enough already,” responded Hall.

What were language purists to do? Despite the best efforts of Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, et al., there has never been a governing body that approves “correct” English. Unlike French, say, or Japanese, English is an open-source language. Anyone is free to suggest new words or phrases. The only criterion for their success is that users adopt them.

This openness has led to a lexical free market in which the demand for coined words to fill gaps in our vocabulary is met with a constant supply. Just as we have had to create words to discuss computers and other new technology, post-Revolutionary Americans needed neologisms to talk about their new political system. When, in 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry presided over an artistic redrawing of his state’s congressional districts that favored his party, a cartoon in the Boston Gazette portrayed one of the newly tailored districts as being shaped like a dragon-salamander. This caricature was headed “The Gerry-mander: A New Species of Monster.” In a 19th-century version of going viral, the Gazette’s cartoon was reprinted in many other newspapers. Not just its eye-catching graphic but the fanciful caption struck readers’ fancy. In time “Gerry-mander” was converted to a verb, lowercased, and shorn of its hyphen. Because no better term has been coined since then, two centuries later gerrymander is still what we call the tortured redrawing of electoral districts.

The demand for new words to fit a constantly changing environment has led to open casting for homemade neologisms, with no shortage of aspirants. What literate person hasn’t dreamed of staking a claim to verbal posterity by coining a word? Some, such as Gelett Burgess, become virtual mints of coined words. Though little remembered today, the early-20th-century San Francisco humorist and folk lexicographer was a prolific generator of neologisms. In a 1906 article, Burgess repurposed the chemical term bromide to refer to clichés. The cover of his 1907 book Are You a Bromide ?  featured an effusive woman named Miss Belinda Blurb, whose surname Burgess suggested we use for book endorsements, ones “abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the ‘sensation of the year.’ ” Blurb caught on and stuck around, partly because it named a new phenomenon heretofore unnamed, partly because it felt good in the mouth. So did another Burgessism: goop. These neology hits were the exception, however. Most of Burgess’s verbal inventions were misses. Like all determined word coiners, Burgess had far more splooches than successes. (Splooch was his word for “a failure.”) Among the humorist’s many creations that died with him were huzzlecoo (“an intimate talk”), igmoil (“a sordid quarrel over money matters”), and wox (“a state of placid, satisfied contentment”).

Coining words is a tough racket. Many audition; few are cast. But the odds against winning a lexicological Oscar don’t deter those who are determined to insert new words into the language. The stakes are too high, the potential reward too great. “In the world of ideas, to name something is to own it,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has explained of his own insistent word coining. Despite this determination to create lasting neologisms (electronic herd, Fayyadism, petro-authoritarianism), Friedman has succeeded only with flat world, and even that success proved fleeting. Friedman’s colleague David Brooks had a similar experience with bobo. After Brooks’s book Bobos in Paradise was published in 2000, this nickname for bourgeois bohemians enjoyed a brief vogue but ended up being used primarily by its coiner.

Attracting favorable attention at birth says little about the likelihood that a newly minted word will reach adulthood. Reviewing past “words-of-the-year” lists is instructive. One of them, metrosexual, gradually faded from use after enjoying a vogue last decade. Another—plutoed (“demoted or devalued”)—didn’t survive the brief hubbub over that planet’s demotion to “dwarf planet” in 2006. Many neologisms acclaimed in their time fade fast: infobahn, hypermiling, Y2K. Terms tied to current events such as Iraqnophobia, Clintern, or Romnesia rarely outlive their news cycle. When former New York congressman Anthony Weiner was caught with his pants down in pictures sent to a tweetheart, this cute word creation enjoyed barely 15 seconds of fame. More recently, Frankenstorm, which was coined by weather forecaster James Cisco as Hurricane Sandy approached land, quickly gave way to Superstorm Sandy after it hit.

A handful of coined words don’t just catch on but stick around. In the current argot they are “sticky.” What makes a coined word sticky? Need, mainly. Need and usefulness. Changing circumstances call for new words to help us discuss them. Even then they must strike a chord, capture a widespread sensibility with a word or phrase, preferably one that’s vivid. A neologism is most likely to take hold if it fills some verbal void in a way that pleases the ear.

Maury Maverick discovered this nearly seven decades ago. While heading a government office in the mid-1940s, the former Texas congressman grew weary of the inflated verbiage he confronted daily among the many bureaucrats who had flocked to Washington during World War II. What to call their windy rhetoric? As Maverick later recalled in a New York Times article, it reminded him of “the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook.” Maverick had his word. In a memo he advised staff members to “stay off the gobbledygook language,” which he defined as “talk or writing which is long, pompous, vague, involved, usually with Latinized words.” The Texan’s coinage quickly wended its way into the national vocabulary, where it has remained ever since. (Maverick’s origin story may have been a bit disingenuous. In his time gobbledygoo was slang for fellatio.)

Gobbledygook passed what linguist Allan Metcalf considers the acid test of a successful neologism: to remain in widespread use for at least two generations. In his thoughtful book Predicting New Words, Metcalf suggests several criteria that indicate whether a neologism is likely to pass this test. They include: diversity of users, frequency of use, and unobtrusiveness. I would add that good harmonics are nearly always a virtue (blurb), as is vivid imagery (fiscal cliff).

Striking a chord in the public consciousness may be the most important consideration of all, and the hardest to anticipate. Who could have predicted that pink slime—the coinage first used in a 2002 email by onetime Agriculture Department scientist Gerald Zirnstein—would become the preferred synonym for beef trimmings treated with ammonia (which meat processors would rather we call “lean finely textured beef”)? Zirnstein says these two words came to him on the spur of the moment after he toured a meat-processing plant and saw the product. As he later told a reporter, “It’s pink. It’s pasty. And it’s slimy looking. So I called it ‘pink slime.’ It resonates, doesn’t it?” After Zirnstein’s email was made public in 2009 (thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by The New York Times), the lean-finely-textured-beef industry went into a tailspin that it blamed partly on his coinage. In 2012 South Dakota’s Beef Products Inc. sued Zirnstein. The case is still pending.

Since pink slime occurred in what he considered a confidential email, Gerald Zirnstein was an unintentional word-coining whistleblower. Not that he regrets his coinage, as some coiners do. Coinage remorse happens. When Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan used the phrase irrational exuberance in a 1996 speech to characterize an overvalued stock market, those two words caused that bipolar market to dip. Yet irrational exuberance suited the investment bubble so well that it stuck. When Fresh Air ’s Terry Gross asked Greenspan a decade later how he’d come up with the phrase, he sighed and said, “I wish I hadn’t.”

Like irrational exuberance, some coined terms catch on quickly because they so aptly fill a gap in our discourse. Others lie dormant for a time, then spring to life when needed. In another context I called these cicada terms. Since that coinage didn’t catch on, let me try Van Winkle words. Fiscal cliff is one. Etymologist Ben Zimmer found this phrase in a 1957 New York Times article on home buying. Credit crunch dates back to at least 1966, when it was used by a Los Angeles Times reporter. There was no great demand for either until the economic hijinks of the aughts, however, when they became an essential part of public discourse.

As concern grows not just about the fate of the economy but about the fate of the planet, useful terms with a longer pedigree than we may realize have taken on new currency. More than a century ago, for example, the neologism smog blended “Fog and Smoke”—the title of a paper given to the Public Health Congress in 1905 by H. A. des Voeux. According to a press account at the time, des Voeux expressed concern that our cities were being blanketed with “smoky fog, or what was known as ‘smog.’ ” Two years later, English physicist John Henry Poynting noted one possible consequence of such air pollutants: “the ‘blanketing effect’ or, as I prefer to call it, the ‘greenhouse effect’ of the atmosphere.” Alexander Graham Bell was an early adopter of Poynting’s vivid phrase. In 1917 the telephone’s inventor took a prophetic interest in the danger that burning fossil fuels would trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere. “We would have a sort of a greenhouse effect,” Bell warned.

Global warming is a consequence of this phenomenon, of course. Where did that phrase come from? Credit is usually given to Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker, who in 1975 published a paper in Science magazine titled “Climate Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” As a result of this article, Broecker is assumed to have coined global warming. Broecker himself hopes he didn’t. The 81-year-old author of hundreds of papers and books is so dismayed by being known primarily for these two words that in 2010 he offered $250 to any student of his who could find an earlier instance of their use. A graduate student named David McGee won the prize by locating a 1957 editorial in Indiana’s Hammond Times that warned of possible “wide scale global warming.” “I was happy when David found it,” Broecker later told a reporter, “because people think that this is the only thing I did in my life.” But even his student’s discovery wasn’t the earliest known use of this phrase. Five years before the Hammond Times editorial, a 1952 San Antonio Express article referred to “scientists who are studying global warming trends.”

Another successful eco-coinage was put in play by environmentalist Amory Lovins after he came upon it by accident. As Lovins and a colleague perused a report on electricity from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission more than two decades ago, one word got their attention: negawatt. It was a typographical error. The report writer meant to say “megawatt. But the more Lovins thought about it, the more sense this typo made. Why not call units of electricity that are saved rather than consumed negawatts?  This was just the word the environmental activist had been looking for to point out that conserving units of carbon-generating energy made it less necessary to produce them. He floated the neologism in a 1984 Business Week interview, then used it in a 1989 speech titled “The Negawatt Revolution.” It has been part of the alternative energy lexicon ever since.

As negawatt suggests, among the various sources of new words, one seldom receives its due: happenstance. Typos. Slips of the tongue. Offhand remarks. It’s ironic that even though Thomas Friedman can get hardly any of his many self-conscious coinages to stick, Justin Timberlake unintentionally gave us a lasting euphemism for flashing when he explained that his exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during halftime at Super Bowl xxxviii was due to a “wardrobe malfunction.”

Although it’s unlikely that Timberlake thought he was neologizing when he concocted this explanation, wardrobe malfunction caught on as a way to refer to public exposure of skin. By contrast, despite being named the word of the year for 2010 by the New Oxford American Dictionary, Sarah Palin’s accidental coinage of refudiate has disappeared. It added nothing to our vocabulary. Nor did Palin’s malaproppish reference to the verbage of political discourse. More recently, Alaska’s former governor railed against faint-hearted Republicans whom she considered wobbly on the issue of tax hikes. Wobbly, in the sense that Sarah Palin used this term, refers to a throwaway phrase spoken by Margaret Thatcher. As she and George H. W. Bush prepared to oust Iraqi invaders from Kuwait in 1990, Britain’s prime minister worried that America’s president might lose his nerve. “This is no time to go wobbly, George,” she warned him. More than two decades later, that vivid phrase still refers to losing one’s nerve, as when an op-ed commentator warned Florida’s governor not to “go wobbly on education.”

Google is another term whose origins can be traced to a spontaneous remark, in this case by a nine-year-old boy named Milton Sirotta, the nephew of American mathematician Edward Kasner. While the two strolled on the New Jersey Palisades in 1920, Kasner wondered out loud what one might call 10 to the 100th power (the number 10 followed by 100 zeroes). “A googol!” suggested Milton. Kasner had his word, one we still use for this huge number.

Milton’s suggestion may have been inspired by the pop-eyed comic strip character Barney Google, who was popular at the time. That would make Barney Google’s creator, Billy DeBeck, indirectly responsible for creating the name of today’s cyber behemoth (which is based on googol ). Cartoonists like DeBeck are unsung heroes of neology. A remarkable number of terms we use today originated in the speech bubbles and captions of cartoonists such as Al Capp (double whammy), Elzie Segar (goon), and Harold Webster (milquetoast). Nineteen-fifty was an unusually good year for coinage-by-caricature, one in which Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) introduced the term nerd in his book If I Ran the Zoo and syndicated political cartoonist Herblock (Herbert Block) put McCarthyism on the political map in a Washington Post cartoon that ridiculed Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s tactics.

Mockery turns out to be a first-rate incubator for lasting neologisms, usually to the amazement of their creators, such as British astronomer Fred Hoyle. During BBC broadcasts in 1949 and 1950, Hoyle dismissed the notion that our universe resulted from a cataclysmic explosion as “this big bang idea.” To his dismay, big bang is what the theory has been called ever since. Four decades after Hoyle’s sarcastic coinage became part of the lexicon, Sky & Telescope magazine sponsored a contest to replace big bang with a better term. This 1993 contest attracted more than 13,000 entries. None improved on the original, however, so big bang it remains. As Carl Sagan, one of the contest’s judges, explained at the time, no alternative “even approaches the phrase ‘big bang’ in felicity.”

That isn’t the only pejorative term to enter the mainstream with its sharp point blunted. Just as Obamacare was embraced by the very person it was meant to taunt, totalitarian was originally a weapon of a word that was adopted by its target. According to Abbott Gleason’s book Totalitarianism, the term was coined in 1923 by anti-Fascist journalist Giovanni Amendola to warn Italians about the all-encompassing sistema totalitaria that Benito Mussolini wanted to impose on them. Other anti-Fascists soon began using Amendola’s coinage to condemn Mussolini’s dictatorial ambitions. Within two years, however, Mussolini himself was bragging about “our fierce totalitarian will.”

A similar fate befell meritocracy. In 1958 British sociologist Michael Young published a dystopian novel called The Rise of the Meritocracy. His intent was to satirize the assessment of “merit” by credentials rather than by performance. In his book’s initial edition the author wrote of meritocracy, “The origin of this unpleasant term … is still obscure. It seems to have been first generally used in the sixties of the last century in small-circulation journals attached to the Labour Party, and gained wide currency much later on.” But in his introduction to a 1994 reprint, Young admitted that he’d coined meritocracy himself. Why had he been so cagey originally? Because when he was coming up with his book’s title, a classicist had warned him that mixing Greek and Latin roots would break the rules of good usage and subject him to ridicule. As it turned out, even though the book itself was controversial, its title wasn’t (“rather the opposite I would say”). Therefore Young now felt free to step forward and claim authorship of meritocracy. “The twentieth century had room for the word,” he realized, even one its coiner meant to be pejorative.

Coining words to use as weapons is a risky business. So is whimsical neologizing. Many a new word has been coined in jest, especially in the cybersphere, which is chockablock with terminology that resulted from word play among self-described propeller heads. On his website, pioneer programmer Paul Niquette says he coined software six decades ago, “more or less as a prank.” At first his new word evoked shrugs and smirks among colleagues. “Software.” Get it? Kind of a fun antonym to “hardware.” Niquette says he and fellow programmers used this coinage for years, but only among themselves. He never put it on the record. Why not? Because, Niquette explains, he’d always thought of software as a term better suited to idle banter than to serious discourse. Before Princeton statistician John Tukey referred to “software” in a 1958 paper—the first recorded use of this term—Niquette says it hadn’t occurred to him that his facetious word for the amusement of computer geeks would eventually go viral.

If Niquette’s origin story is accurate, software is just one of many whimsical cyberterms-among-friends to achieve widespread use. Blog is another. In 1997, website host Jorn Barger began calling his regular online posts a web log. Others quickly compressed Barger’s coinage into weblog. Web logger Peter Merholz mused that this condensation could be compressed still further. In early 1999 Merholz posted a message on his web log saying, “I’ve decided to pronounce the word ‘weblog’ as wee’-blog. Or ‘blog’ for short.” Since web logs constituted a kind of “information upchucking,” Merholz recalls telling a friend at the time, why not give them a name that was “roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting.” Merholz thought he was just being goofy when coining blog. He had no intention of contributing a new word to the lexicon, let alone one so tongue-in-cheek. But virtually overnight blog became the go-to term for web logs, online and off. (It was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2004.) After Merholz’s coinage became commonplace, blogger Brad Graham speculated facetiously about other words that this one might spawn: blogiverse, say, blogmos, or blogosphere. We fancied the last one and—to Graham’s astonishment—went with it.

One reason so many fanciful word creations catch on is that their creators think the terms are so absurd that no one will adopt them, little realizing that this is just the type of neologism we covet. Earnestly coined terms, by contrast, can be too self-conscious, too obscure, too intent on making the coiner look clever or erudite. Most of us prefer terse, earthy, descriptive terms; propriety be damned. Blog. Pink slime. Fiscal cliff. Since it takes two to create a new term—one to invent it, the other to use it—many unintended coinages succeed because those who adopt them become co-coiners, in a sense, who are invested in the word’s success.

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Ralph Keyes is the author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Coined Words, which has just been published.


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