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Serendipity, robot, and more common words invented by writers

Portrait of Horace Walpole, John Giles Eccardt, 1754.
Chilling in a robe and coining serendipity.
Portrait of Horace Walpole, John Giles Eccardt, 1754.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It’s pretty rare to be able to trace a word’s invention back to a single person. Most words develop slowly, over time, and are shaped by entire cultures, not individual people.

And then there are the words that were invented by authors. This occasionally happens when an author combines root words from different languages, old names, and/or nonsense syllables to create character names, place names, or names for concepts that have never been imagined before, and slowly those names creep into common usage.

Here are six common English words that were first invented by authors.

1) Chortle, Lewis Carroll

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"

He chortled in his joy.

Carroll’s Jabberwocky — which first appeared as a poem read by Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — is chock-full of nonsense words, but only one of them made the jump to the English language. Perhaps that’s because "chortled" suggests both "chuckled" and "snorted," making it easy to intuit the meaning in a way you can’t quite do with "brillig."

2) Pandemonium, John Milton

Mean while the winged Haralds by command

Of Sovran power, with awful Ceremony

And Trumpets sound throughout the Host proclaim

A solemn Councel forthwith to be held

At Pandæmonium, the high Capital

Of Satan and his Peers …

In Paradise Lost, Milton named the capital city of Hell Pandæmonium, but he didn’t invent the name out of thin air. He used classical roots: the Greek "pan," meaning all, and the Latin "demonium," or demons. Together they mean "the place with all the demons." Today, of course, pandemonium describes the chaos that results when all hell breaks loose.

3) Malapropism, Richard Brinsley Sheridan

I'll take another opportunity of paying my respects to Mrs. Malaprop, when she shall treat me, as long as she chooses, with her select words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced.

Mrs. Malaprop is a character in the 18th-century Irish play The Rivals who delights in elaborate, polysyllabic words and constantly misuses them. "He is the very pine-apple of politeness!" she cries. "His physiognomy so grammatical!" Her name comes from the French phrase mal à propos, which means inopportunely or inappropriately, but in English a "malapropism" is now specifically a misused word, in honor of Mrs. Malaprop.

4) Robot, Karel Čapek

What young Rossum invented was a worker with the least needs possible. He had to make him simpler. He threw out everything that wasn’t of direct use in his work, that’s to say, he threw out the man and put in the robot. Miss Glory, robots are not people. They are mechanically much better than we are, they have an amazing ability to understand things, but they don’t have a soul.

"Robot" comes from the Czech word "robotnik," meaning serf or slave. In R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), robots are artificial people designed to perform hard labor, until (spoiler alert!) they rise up in rebellion against the human race. Čapek’s robots are not robots in the modern sense of the term — their artificial skin and organs make them physically indistinguishable from regular humans, closer to cyborgs than to modern robots — but R.U.R.’s translation into English in 1923 marks the moment when the fantasy of what had previously been called automatons became the fantasy of the robot.

5) Serendipity, Horace Walpole

This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand Serendipity?

This one comes not from a book but from a letter. Horace Walpole, the author of the gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, wrote to a friend in 1754 with news of the exciting new word he’d invented, drawing from a fairy tale set in Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Serendipity, the faculty or instance of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident, is often considered one of the most difficult-to-translate words in the English language.

6) Utopia, Thomas More

The Utopians call those nations that come and ask magistrates from them Neighbors; but those to whom they have been of more particular service, Friends; and as all other nations are perpetually either making leagues or breaking them, they never enter into an alliance with any state. They think leagues are useless things, and believe that if the common ties of humanity do not knit men together, the faith of promises will have no great effect; and they are the more confirmed in this by what they see among the nations round about them, who are no strict observers of leagues and treaties.

Utopia is a Latin word that means "nowhere," so when Thomas More used it as the name of his imagined ideal nation in 1516, he was emphasizing its unreality. Now we use the word as a way of describing imagined perfect civilizations, but utopias are nowhere near as popular as their antonyms: dystopias, which are literally "imagined bad places."

Bonus: Why Shakespeare isn’t on this list

It’s a common myth that Shakespeare invented thousands of commonly used English words, including classics like "swagger," "eyeball," "puke," and "dawn." Unfortunately, this is almost definitely false. When the first editions of the Oxford English Dictionary were compiled, lexicographers had to painstakingly scan individual texts by hand to find the first recorded usage of every word in the dictionary. They ended up listing Shakespeare as the first person to write down 3,200 words.

But today, with the advent of computerized word searching, Shakespeare has been dethroned from almost all of his etymological entries. (The same thing happened on a smaller scale to Charles Dickens, who it seems did not in fact coin the words "boredom" and "butterfingers.")

It turns out that Shakespeare’s genius was not in coining new words — it was in hearing new words and writing them down before they became widespread, and in wringing new meaning out of old, worn-out words: turning "elbow" into a verb and "where" into a noun. He didn’t invent the words, but he knew how to use them better than anyone.

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