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Makers Of English Words

( Originally Published 1912 )

EVERY time a new word is added to the language, either by borrowing, composition, or derivation, it is due, of course, to the action, conscious or unconscious, of some one person. Words do not grow out of the soil, or fall on us from heaven; they are made by individuals; and it would be extremely interesting if we could always find out who it was who made them. But, of course, for the great majority of new words, even those created in the present day, such knowledge is unattainable. They are first, perhaps, suggested in conversation, when the speaker probably does not know that he is making a new word; but the fancy of the hearers is struck, they spread the new expression till it becomes fashionable, and if it corresponds to some real need, and gives a name to some idea or sentiment unnamed or badly named before, it has some slight chance of living. We witness, almost every day, the growth of new words in popular slang, and the process by which slang is created is really much the same as that which creates language, and many of our respectable terms have a slang origin.

When, however, we come to learned, as opposed to popular words, the case is some-what different. These for the most part make their first appearance in writing, and some of them are deliberate formations, whose authors have left on record the date and occasion of their creation. Our words quality and moral are descended from Latin words made by Cicero to translate terms used by Aristotle; deity is from a creation of St. Augustine's; centrifugal and centripetal are from Latin compounds formed and first used by Sir Isaac Newton. Many of our more recent words are also deliberate creations. Jeremy Bentham has left on record his formation of the word international; agnostic and agnosticism were made by Huxley; Coleridge confesses to have made the verb to intensify, and he also formed anew aloofness, although it had been used at least once before his time. Cyclone was the deliberate creation in 1848 of a meteorologist who wished for a word to describe the phenomenon of circular or whirling winds, and anti-cyclone was suggested about twenty years later by Sir Francis Galton. Constituency was an invention of Macaulay's, for which he apologized; scientist was deliberately made by Whewell, as there was no common word till then to describe students of different kinds of science. Other XIXth Century words which we know to have been deliberately created are Eurasian, exogamy, folklore, hypnotism, telegraph, telephone, photograph, besides a whole host of more strictly scientific terms.

But most words never possessed, or have soon lost, their birth-certificates; and it would seem at first sight impossible to discover how they arose. Since, however, the publication was begun of the Oxford Dictionary, whose army of over a thousand readers has carefully searched, for many years, the records of the language, and has traced, as far as is humanly possible, each new word to its first appearance, a great body of new information has been made available for the student. Any one who will make from this work a collection of modern words and note their origin, cannot help being struck by the fact that many of our most expressive and beautiful words are first found in the writings of certain men of genius, and bear every sign of being their own creations. Of course we can never know for a certainty, unless he distinctly states it, that a writer has created the new word which is found for the first time in his writings. He may have derived it from some undiscovered source, or he may have heard it in conversation; all we can know is that the word was introduced, and became current at about the time that it makes its first appearance in his work. On the other hand, if we find among a number of contemporary writers in whose works few or no new words are found, one to whom hundreds of new formations are traced; if these are learned words, not likely to be used in conversation; if no earlier trace of them has been discovered, and if, moreover, they are the sort of words we should expect this writer to create-if they seem to bear, like the coinage of a king, the stamp of his personality impressed on them,-then surely there is at least a strong presumption in favour of the belief that he created or first borrowed them himself. Let us, for example, take the instance of Sir Thomas Browne. n 1646 he published that odd and interesting book, the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, and although his other works are not lacking in new formations, this book contains them by the hundred, and has probably given currency to more words in the English language than any one book since the time of Chaucer. And these words are almost all just the words that we would expect him to create-long, many-syllabled words derived from the Latin, and are often expressive of his own musing and meditative mind hallucination, insecurity, retrogression, precarious, incontrovertible, incantatory, antediluvian-the complete list would fill a page or more of this book, and would be a sufficient proof that a writer like Browne makes for himself a large part of his own vocabulary. And it is a proof, moreover, of his genius for word-making that many of these new creations—words like medical, literary, electricity have become quite indispensable in modern speech.

Many new words are found also in Milton's writings (the greater number of them in Paradise Lost), words like dimensionless, in-finitude, emblazonry, liturgical, ensanguined, anarch, gloom, irradiance, Pandemonium, bannered, echoing, rumoured, impassive, moon-struck, Satanic. These words, too, bear the stamp of his coining, and proclaim themselves the offspring of his genius.

In Shakespeare's plays, partly owing to their immense popularity, but quite as much to his unequalled sense for language, more new words are found than in almost all the rest of the English poets put together; for not only is our speech full of phrases from his plays, but a very large number of our most expressive words are first found in them. And in Shakespeare we find that rarest and most marvellous kind of word-making, when in the glow and fire of inspiration, some poet, to express his thought, will venture on a great audacity of language, and invent some undreamed-of word, as when Macbeth cries—

"No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnardine";

where multitudinous and incarnardine (as a verb) are new words; or where Romeo speaks of the "yoke of inauspicious stars," or Prospero of "cloud-cap't towers" and "the baseless fabric of this vision."

Of the new words in Chaucer and Wyclif we have already spoken; a large number of new terms are first found in the works of their contemporaries Gower and Lowland, and in those of Lydgate and Caxton in the XVth Century; and Caxton in especial seems to have introduced a large number of words from standard or Parisian French. The new words, indeed, found in these earlier authors are almost all borrowings from foreign languages; and it was hardly before the XVIth Century that English writers began to form compounds freely. But in the works and translations of Coverdale and Tindale, we find a number of new compounds: loving-kindness, blood-guiltiness, noon-day, morning-star, kind-hearted, in Coverdale; long-suffering, broken-hearted and many others in Tindale. Scapegoat was a mistranslation of Tindale's-one of those happy errors which have added so many useful and expressive words to the English Language. n the Revised Version of 1611 we do not find many new words; but the effect of this version in preserving old-fashioned terms from extinction has of course been very great.

With Spenser we reach the period of self-conscious care for the English language. While previous writers have been content to write in the English of their time, only occasionally borrowing or forming new words when they needed them, Spenser deliberately formed for himself a kind of artificial language, made up partly of old forms, partly of dialect expressions, and partly of his own inventions. We find in him for the first time a process to which the English language owes much of the present richness; the deliberate revival of old-fashioned and obsolete words; and even many of his new formations like drowsihead, idlesse, dreariment, elfin, fool happy, have often an archaic character. Like most men of letters who revive old words, he frequently made mistakes about their form or meaning; derring-do is not a noun but a verbal phrase in Chaucer and Lydgate, whence he took it; and chevisance, which he used for "enterprise," was really a word meaning shiftiness; and he employed the archaic verb hight in a number of senses very different from its true meaning.

With the Elizabethan writers and dramatists, like Nashe, Greene, and Chapman, we come on yet another class of innovators, whom we may call eccentric word-makers. These writers seem to love innovation for its own sake, and to invent new words, not because they are well formed or necessary, but simply for the sake of novelty and oddness. Their works provide immense lists of words which are only used by their own creators, and have never found general acceptance. The XVIIth Century abounds in writers of this kind, whose poems and prose-writings are full of strange formations. But even these eccentrics performed a certain service to the language, for by continually experimenting, they would sometimes form in English or adopt from Greek or Latin a word that deserved to live: thus dramatist and fatalism are first found in Cudworth, and in the enormous list of strange formations traced to Henry More are a number of current words like central, circuitous, decorous, freakish, and fortuitous.

Even more fortunate were two secular writers of this period, Evelyn and Robert Boyle. Evelyn felt, as he states in his Diary, the need for the importation of foreign words; and of the large number, found for the first time in his writings, many were no doubt first naturalized by him. They belong, for the most part, to the vocabulary of art, or are descriptive of the ornaments of life: outline, attitude, contour, pastel, monochrome, balustrade, cascade, opera.

The new words found in Boyle's writings are, of course, of a different character, being for the most part scientific terms, such as pendulum, intensity, pathological, corpuscle, essence in the sense of extract, and fluid as a noun.

Dryden's works contribute many new words; a large number of French phrases were imported by the Restoration dramatists, and with the reign of Queen Anne came a new enrichment of the language. Pope's list of new words is the longest in the time of the early Georges; and Dr. Johnson, in spite of his declaration that he had rarely used a word without the authority of a previous writer, would seem, if we are to judge by the Oxford Dictionary, to have added a considerable number of learned words to the language. Among these may be mentioned irascibility, and the modern meanings of words like acrimonious, literature, and comic. When we find words like these, with the exclamation fiddlededee, traced by the Dictionary to Dr. John-son; etiquette, friseur, picnic, and persiflage to Lord Chesterfield; bored and blasé to Byron, propriety in its modern use to the eminently proper Miss Burney, and idealism in its non-philosophical sense to Shelley, it begins to seem as if authors had a tendency to invent or import, or at least to use first in print, words descriptive of their own characteristics.

Of other XVIIIth Century writers, Fielding, Sterne, and Gibbon were not word-creators; but Burke seems to have possessed this faculty, and it is to him, apparently, that we owe a considerable part of our political vocabulary—words like colonial, colonization, diplomacy, federalism, electioneering, expenditure, financial, municipality, and our modern use of organization, representation, and resources.

The rise, at the end of the XVIIIth Century, of the Romantic Movement made a demand for words not needed in the previous century. This took for the most part the form of the revival of old and obsolete words, like chivalrous, which Dr. Johnson had de-scribed in his Dictionary as out of use. Sir Walter Scott was the greatest of these word-revivers, and when we meet with fine old swash-bucklers' words like raid, foray, and onslaught, they are very likely to come out of his poems, or the Waverley Novels. Fitful, which had once been used by Shakespeare, in the phrase "after life's fitful fever," he also revived, and bluff and lodestar; gruesome he introduced from the Scotch, and the romantic word glamour, which is derived from grammerye (another of his revivals), and meant, in the Middle Ages, grammar-learning, the study of Latin, and thus in ignorant minds soon acquired, like philosophy, a magical meaning.

Both Coleridge and Southey were great experimenters in language, and both almost equalled the XVIIth Century divines in their old, learned, and outlandish formations. But among Coleridge's strange words we find pessimism, phenomenal, and Elizabethan, and many others have become popular and current.

Wordsworth and Shelley have not contributed much to our modern vocabulary, but Keats, who in his love of unusual words showed often more enthusiasm than taste, was nevertheless a genuine word-maker. It is true that of the many old words he revived, few or none have become popular, and some of his own inventions, like aurorean and beamily, are not happy creations. But the poet who could find such expressions as winter's "pale misfeature," "globed paeonies," and linen "smooth and lavendered," must plainly have had a genius for word-creation, aud would have done much, had he lived, to enrich the English language. And Keats, like Milton and Shakespeare, possessed that rare gift of the great poet, the power of creating those beautiful compound epithets which are miniature poems in themselves, deep damasked, for instance, and dew-dabbled, and the nightingale's full-throated ease.

After Keats the faculty of word-creation shows a remarkable decline, and with the exception of Carlyle, the harvest of new words from the works of the other XIXth Century authors is a poor and scanty one. Tennyson's compound epithets, like evil-starred, green-glimmering, and fire-crowned, are sometimes beautiful, and we owe to him apparently Horatian, moonlit, and fairy tales. But Tennyson cannot be claimed as a great word-creator; and still less can be said for Browning, whose odd formations like crumblement, febricity, darlingness, artistry, garnishry, can hardly be considered valuable additions to the language.

In Carlyle, however, the Victorian era possessed one great word-creator, one who could treat language with the audacity of the old writers, and could, like them, fuse his temperament into a noun or adjective, and stamp it with his image. Croakery, gigmanity, Bedlamism, grumbly, dandiacal—would any one but Carlyle have invented words like these? He had a genius for nicknames, his pig-philosophy and dismal science are still remembered, and his eccentricities and audacities would fill many pages. But his contributions were not all of this personal character; like Sir Walter Scott, he introduced words like feckless, lilt, and outcome into England out of Scotland; and a number of current words like environment and decadent are traced to his writings.

When we come to living authors, one searches the dictionary in vain for any serious contributions to our vocabulary from their works. Although at least twenty new words are added to our current speech every year, and although in countries like France or Germany, authors and men of letters make at least an attempt to provide their age with expressive terms for their new experiences, in England writers seem to be somewhat unduly conservative, and to leave this task to others, to the newspapers, or to chance. At the present day our only deliberate word-makers are the men of science, and the popular interest in their discoveries and inventions tends to give great currency to their new formations. As, moreover, in this age of newspapers we make the acquaintance of our new words by reading, and not as of old, through speech, these new formations do not undergo the processes of transformation and assimilation by which words were naturalized in the past, but keep their clear cut and alien forms, and so tend to produce a learned scientific jargon, which is not, as of old, gradually translated into English by popular speech, but tends, on the contrary, to extend itself over our old English, and cripple or destroy the methods and machinery of the ancient language. This, from the point of view of literary or idiomatic English, cannot but be regarded as a misfortune, although an inevitable one, for which as long as the present state of things continues, no remedy can be suggested. For there can be no doubt that science is in many ways the natural enemy of language. Language, either literary or colloquial, demands a rich store of living and vivid words—words that are "thought-pictures," and appeal to the senses, and also embody our feelings about the objects they describe. But science cares nothing about emotion or vivid presentation; her ideal is a kind of algebraic notation, to be used simply as an instrument of analysis; and for this she rightly prefers dry and abstract terms, taken from some dead language, and deprived of all life and personality.

However, if these and other dangers seem to threaten the English language, we must remember that it has passed through greater dangers, and suffered from far worse misfortunes in the past. It has been mutilated as hardly any other language has been mutilated, but these mutilations have made place for wonderful new growths; its vocabulary has been almost destroyed, but new and better words have been found to make good these losses; foreign influences, French and Latin, have threatened its existence, but it has in the end conquered its conquerors, and enriched itself with their spoils; and we may rest confident that as long as the English nation remains vigorous in thought and feeling, it will somehow forge for itself a medium of expression worthy of itself, and of the great past from which it has inherited so much.



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