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Freshly Minted: "The Hidden History of Coined Words"

In the mid-1930s, when television was in its infancy, a British Broadcasting Corporation subcommittee on new words convened to tackle an urgent task: what to call the TV counterpart to radio's listener. The committee's chairman, Logan Pearsall Smith, thought a television receiver should be called a view-box, so he favored view-box gazer for the person on the watching end. His idea received zero votes. Other committee members proposed looker-in, looker-on, auralooker, glancer, optaruist, seer, sighter, tele-looker, televist, visionnaire, visor, and other terms.

In the end, the committee reluctantly approved a suggestion from the BBC's Committee on Spoken English to use televiewer until something better came along. Shortened in due course to viewer, it's the word we still use.

This bit of word-invention history is just one of the many lively and enlightening tales that Ralph Keyes tells in his new book, The Hidden History of Coined Words (Oxford University Press, 2021). If you've ever wondered how neologisms are created, and why some new words succeed while others fail, you'll want to read — and quote — Hidden History.

Committees, you will probably not be surprised to learn, are not reliable laboratories for word-invention. But even brilliant solo practitioners have struck out more than they've homered. John Milton, the 17th-century poet, is credited with adding more than 600 words to the English language, including advantage, damp, fragrance, jubilant, and padlock; but he also had many nonstarters, such as opiniastrous (opinionated) and intervolve (to involve with one another). Roald Dahl invented many memorable terms, including Oompa Loompa and scrumdiddlyuptious, as well as many more forgettable ones, including chiddler (child), sogmire (quagmire), and frobscottle ("a fizzy drink whose bubbles fall rather than rise").

"As prolific word coiners … routinely discover," Keyes writes, "deliberately creating a new term in hopes that others will adopt it is generally an unfruitful way to refresh our language." He quotes the linguist Barbara Wallraff: "We can make words up; we can love the words we make up; we can feel, well, that really nailed it; but we can't make them enter the language."

An impressive number of successful coinages are created casually, by accident, or as jokes, Keyes writes. Sometimes they succeed because they're simply fun to say. Consider mugwump, a word that sprang onto the scene after the Civil War to refer to "a feisty political independent," especially a Republican who broke ranks to support Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential election. It derived from an Algonquian word, mugquomp, which meant "important tribal leader," but it was used mostly to taunt the self-important and indecisive. (Keyes doesn't mention it, but I've always loved the definition of mugwump that circulated in the 1930s: "a bird that sits with its mug on one side of the fence and its wump on the other.")

OK — the most internationally successful word ever coined in America — had similar prankish roots: It originated as the abbreviation of the jokey oll korrect ("all correct") in 1839, when eccentric spelling was a fad. That origin story was lost for more than a century, Keyes tells us, until the linguist Allan Walker Read traced OK back to a satirical piece in the Boston Morning Post. Another linguist, Allan Metcalf, picked up the torch and in 2010 published a comprehensive book about OK.

Keyes does readers a service by going beyond generally accepted stories to unearth the true sources of coined words. The tech titan Google is usually said to have derived its name from googol, a word that, we're told, was invented on the spot in the mid-1930s by the 9-year-old nephew of the mathematician Edward Kasner. But by then, Keyes tells us, various forms of google had been in wide circulation for a couple of decades. Most notably, there was Barney Google, the main character of a comic strip introduced by Billy DeBeck in 1919. His name played on an already-popular slang term, "goo-goo eyes." (DeBeck is also responsible for coining heebie-jeebies, a fun-to-say synonym for "the jitters.")

I create company and product names for a living, so I especially enjoyed Keyes's stories about commercial terms that became household words. In the 1920s, when DuPont invented a new synthetic fiber that improved on rayon, its code name was Fiber 66. The official naming job was turned over to a committee — uh-oh! — which sifted through more than 400 nominations, including Artex, Novasilk, Tensheer, and Ramex. The committee's chair suggested Norun, which was tweaked into Nilon, whose pronunciation was ambiguous. Spelling it Nylon solved the problem, "becoming one of the most successful brand name inventions in the history of America commerce. And," Keyes adds, "a scratch coinage" — what name developers and trademark lawyers call a fanciful name — "not just a play on existing words."

"Inventors are generally hopeless at naming their inventions," Bill Bryson observed in The Mother Tongue (1990). Keyes cites a telling example: In the 1950s, when Dow Chemical came up with a clingy new food wrapping, its inventor named it eonite, after a fictional indestructible material in Little Orphan Annie. His boss thought he could do better: he blended the names of his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Ann, and created Saran Wrap.

The histories in Hidden History are selective. There's no acknowledgment, for example, of the rich "slanguage" contributed to the lexicon by the show-business publication Variety. (A sampling: boffo, soap opera, cliffhanger, deejay, nitery, passion pit to mean "drive-in theater," and many others.) Nor does Keyes delve into the productive pastime of political suffixation, including -gate scandals (Watergate, Gamergate, Debategate) and -ghazi words (Benghazi, Bridgeghazi, Umbrellaghazi)

Alas, I caught Keyes in some history-coining. Yes, the newspaper columnist Herb Caen came up with Baghdad-by-the-Bay, but it was his nickname for San Francisco, not Berkeley. And Lexicon Branding, which happens to be the company that first hired me as a name developer, is still fruitfully in business under its own name. It has not, as Keyes asserts, changed its name to Zinzin. (Zinzin is another successful Bay Area branding agency.)

Keyes, a prolific writer and teacher and the author of The Post-Truth Era (2004), closes the book with advice for would-be word-coiners. Short words are best — think of blurb, blog, and meme — because they're easier to remember and spell. (There are plenty of exceptions, though, from gobbledygook to serendipity.) Aim for words that please the ear — alliteration often helps, as in road rage and meter maid — and that create word pictures, like big bang and slam dunk. "Versatility is a major asset for a freshly minted term," Keyes writes: consider the many senses of bug. Greek and Latin roots may sound erudite, but they're likely to fall flat with modern audiences unless you're naming a new drug. And by all means have fun! Children's authors, whose readers are connoisseurs of fun (funnoisseurs?), have coined many successful words, from Lewis Carroll's snark to Dr. Seuss's Zillow (adopted by an online real-estate company).

I'd add one piece of advice from my own experience: Don't give up. As the Nobel Prize – winning chemist Linus Pauling put it, the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones. If at first you eonite, try, try again.

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Disclaimer: The publisher sent me a review copy of The Hidden Histories of Coined Words.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 21st, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Rita H.
I love that origin of OK! I am buying this book!
Sunday April 25th, 1:28 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
A fun read. Thanks. Nancy.

However, I was surprised by the omission of Shakespeare from the conversation. He was surely the master at inventing words that became part of the English lexicon — over 400 — from "academe" to "zany."

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