Neologisms are new words, usages, or expressions and for a new one to embed itself in the English language is fairly hard to do. Every year in the United States there are 600,000 to 1,000,000 books published, and while not all of them contain new words, some of them do and very rarely does a new word emerge and become part of our everyday language.
While its rare, there have been a handful of writers who have created a word, and those words are now common and English speakers use them in everyday life.
10. Nerd – Dr. Seuss
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is often credited with being the person who invented the word nerd. It first appeared in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo; however, it wasn’t used in the same context that it is today. Instead, in the book, a boy named Gerald McGrew is visiting a zoo, but doesn’t find them exciting enough, and if he was in charge, he would bring in better animals, leading to the lines “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo/A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!”
When a columnist from PC magazine contacted Geisel about the use of the word, Geisel didn’t specifically remember writing the line, but he said “Perhaps, it comes from ‘Nerdfogel,’ which I’m sure you know all about.” And no, we don’t actually know what that is all about, and we live in the age of Google.
The first time that it was used in the context we know today was a year later in an article in Newsweek published on October 8, 1951, about slang that teenagers used in Detroit. It was used to refer to someone who was a “drip” or a “square.”
9. Quark – James Joyce
Written over the course of 17 years and published in 1939, just two years before James Joyce’s death, Finnegan’s Wake is one of the hardest books in the English language to read. It has a non-linear dream-like narrative and bounces around to different character psyches.
Despite having nothing to do with particle physics, Joyce helped contribute to the lexicon of the field. In 1963, Murray Gell-Mann was looking for a name for his theoretical elementary particle of matter that are smaller than a proton or a neutron. Gell-Mann originally came up with the word “quork,” which rhymed with pork.
Months later, Gell-Mann was reading Finnegan’s Wake, because that’s what theoretical physicists apparently do for fun, when he came across the lines:
Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.
Even though Joyce intended quark to rhyme with Mark and bark, Gell-Mann like the spelling of the word. He especially liked it because the hypothetical particles came in threes. He justfied his pronoucation by pointing out his pronoucation is similar to “quart.”
As for what Joyce meant by quark, he was referring to a German cottage cheese-like food made by warming soured milk.
8. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 takes place in World War II, and follows a bombardier named John Yossarian with the United States Air Force. The titular catch-22 is a paradox where “an attempt to escape makes escape impossible.”
There are several examples of catch-22s in the novel, but the main one involves the sanity of the bomber pilots. There is a rule that if a crewman is insane, they are ineligible to fly on a mission. All they have to do is tell their superior that they are too insane to fly. However, by being aware that they are insane, it proves they aren’t really insane; therefore, they are eligible to fly.
Another example of a catch-22 comes from actress Mary Murphy who said, “The show-business catch-22 – no work unless you have an agent, no agent unless you’ve worked.”
Since the publican of the novel in 1961, the term has since entered the English lexicon to describe the paradox of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
7. Yahoo – Johnathan Swift
Johnathan Swift’s classic book Gulliver Travels is split into four different journeys. In the last voyage, the main character, Lemuel Gulliver, is marooned on the islands of the Land of the Houyhnhnms. The Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent and talking horses. Also on the island are Yahoos, which are humanoids, but they are savage brutes and are ruled by the Houyhnhnms.
The word Yahoo has since crept into the English language, defined as “a boorish, crass, or stupid person.”
As for the technology company Yahoo!, The founders chose the name because Yahoo started off life as a directory of other sites that was organized in a hierarchical format and Yahoo! is a backronym for “Yet Another Hierarchically Organized Oracle.”
6. Utopia – Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was published in 1516 in Latin, and is a depiction of an ideal civilization. It’s a socio-political satire and asks if an ideal world is actually possible.
More made up the word “Utopia” for the ideal land as a play on two words from Ancient Greece. The first is ou-topos, which means nowhere or no place, and eu-topos, which means good place. And of course, by conceiving the term Utopia in the first place, More is also indirectly responsible for the creation of the word dystopia, as well. After all, dystopia wouldn’t exist without Utopia.
5. Cyberspace – William Gibson
William Gibson is one of the leading figures in the cyberpunk movement, and he also coined the term “cyberspace.” In a short story written in 1982 called “Burning Chrome” he describes cyberspace as a “mass consensual hallucination” between computer networks. Gibson expanded on the idea of cyberspace in his magnum opus, 1984’s Necromancer. In the book, Gibson describes cyberspace as:
A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.
So while he wasn’t exactly correct in predicting what cyberspace is like (well, what it’s like in 2017), he was the first person to use the term to describe a network of computers.
4. Meme – Richard Dawkins
Famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The main argument of the book is that genes strive for immortality and lifeforms, like humans, are just the vessels that are used to achieve that goal. It was a groundbreaking book and one of the first bestselling popular science books. In the book, Dawkins compares genes to units of culture, which he calls memes. He wrote:
Memes (discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on) are to culture what genes are to life. Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes.
Dawkins said he first experienced a meme when he was 7 years old and living at a boarding school. Each night, the boys would have to say the following prayer: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. Amen.” When he was that age, he, nor the rest of the boys, understood what all the words meant and had never seen it written down. Instead, it was a piece of culture passed from generation to generation, which isn’t much different than genes being passed on from generation to generation.
3. Factoid – Norman Mailer
Marilyn: A Biography is a photograph book of Marilyn Monroe and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer provided a long essay for the text of the book. The book was incredibly controversial because Mailer theorized that the FBI and the CIA murdered Monroe because of her affair with Bobby Kennedy.
It’s also the first time that the word “factoid” was used. A lot of people, including us at TopTenz, think that it means a brief, interesting fact. However, the suffix “-oid” usually means something that resembles, but isn’t a member of a group. Like Yahoos are humanoids, not humans. So a factoid is something that resembles a fact, but isn’t actually a fact. Instead, it is “an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.” An example would be being able to see the Great Wall of China from space or waking up a sleepwalker causes them harm.
What’s interesting is that Merriam-Webster lists both definitions, even though, as Alexis C. Madrigal from The Atlantic points out, the new definition is a complete inversion of Mailer’s intended meaning.
2. 229 Words – William Shakespeare
The problem comes down to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is the definitive catalog of the English language. When it lists a word, it includes the earliest known use of that word. When the dictionary was published in 1923, it was compiled from entries written by volunteers. Many of them looked for words in Shakespeare’s works because his works are popular and readily available. So Shakespeare could have very easily been using common words that are found in older, lesser-known texts that the volunteers writing the entries for the OED weren’t aware of. Also, many of Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language were not words, but phrases like “All that glitters is not gold” and “Devil incarnate,” and creating phrases isn’t the same as creating new words.
1. 630 Words – John Milton
When John Milton was writing Paradise Lost in the 17th century, the English language was a lot more fluid than it is today and this gave the blind writer more freedom to create new words. As a result, Milton is credited with introducing 630 different words into the English language.
Many of them have gone out of fashion, like “ensanguined” and “horrent.” But he did introduce some words that are still common today. One of the most famous of his neologisms is the word pandemonium, which is the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost. He also came up with the word terrific, but it had a different meaning for Milton; something terrifying was terrific. Other major everyday words that Milton introduced are fragrance, enjoyable, space (as in outer space), unoriginal, and lovelorn, just to name a few.