Words > Googol, Yahoo, and 28 other words invented from scratch

Googol, Yahoo, and 28 other words invented from scratch

All words, to some extent, were invented. But some were invented more than others. While most words enter the lexicon through a long and dusty journey, smuggling their well-worn roots from one tongue to another, some words are born fresh and shiny, like newly minted coins.

Neologisms coined into existence can be found throughout literature, science, and industry, and they include some of the words you use every day.

1. serendipity

The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.

We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which (along with his novel The Castle of Otranto, considered the first Gothic novel) his literary reputation rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, in which he discusses a certain painting, Walpole mentions a discovery about the significance of a Venetian coat of arms that he has made while looking at random into an old book—a method by which he had apparently made other worthwhile discoveries before: "This discovery I made by a talisman [a procedure achieving results like a charm] ... by which I find everything I want ... wherever I dip for it. This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word." Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of "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...."

2. chortle

To express with a gleeful chuckle.

"'O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!' He chortled in his joy." Perhaps Lewis Carroll would chortle a bit himself to find that people are still using the word chortle, which he coined in Through the Looking-Glass, published in 1872. In any case, Carroll had constructed his word well, combining the words "chuckle" and "snort." He also provided us means of referring to such hybrids, which are often prosaically called "blends." In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty uses "portmanteau" (a suitcase that opens into two hinged compartments) to describe the word "slithy," saying, "It's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word" (the meanings being "lithe" and "slimy").

3. galumph

To move or run clumsily or heavily.

Coined by Carroll in his poem "Jabberwocky" in Through the Looking-Glass, perhaps as a blend of "gallop" and "triumph."

4. jabberwocky

Nonsensical speech or writing.

Coined by Carroll as the title of the aforementioned poem.

5. heebie-jeebies

A feeling of uneasiness or nervousness; the jitters.

Coined by American cartoonist William De Beck (1890-1942) in his comic strip Barney Google.

6. googol

The number 10 raised to the power 100, written out as the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros.

Coined when mathematician Edward Kasner asked his nephew to create a word for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.

7. yahoo

An unrefined and often loud or disruptive person.

From the name of a race of brutish creatures resembling men in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726).

8. blurb

A brief publicity notice, as on a book jacket.

Coined by Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), US humorist and illustrator.

9. blatant

Glaringly conspicuous or obvious.

Coined by Edmund Spenser in the 16th century; probably influenced by Latin blatīre, to babble.

10. neutrino

An elementary particle with zero charge and zero mass.

Neutrinos were not observed until 1955, roughly a quarter of a century after the physicist Wolfgang Pauli first proposed, on theoretical grounds, that they might exist. Pauli was studying certain radioactive decay processes in which it seemed that energy somehow mysteriously disappeared. He suggested that the energy was carried away by a very small, electrically neutral particle that was not being detected. (He originally wanted to name the particle a neutron but didn't publish the suggestion, and a few years later the particle we now know as the neutron was discovered and named in print. The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi then coined the term neutrino, which means "little neutron" in Italian.) Neutrinos are hard to detect because they interact only very weakly with other forms of matter. Most of the neutrinos that reach the Earth from space pass right through and go out the other side. Even a chunk of iron a few light-years thick would stop only about half of the neutrinos that struck it.

11. quark

Any of a group of elementary particles supposed to be the fundamental units that combine in threes to make up protons and neutrons.

"Three quarks for Muster Mark! / Sure he hasn't got much of a bark / And sure any he has it's all beside the mark." This passage from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, part of a scurrilous 13-line poem directed against King Mark, the cuckolded husband in the Tristan legend, has left its mark on modern physics. The poem and the accompanying prose are packed with names of birds and words suggestive of birds, and the poem is a squawk against the king that suggests the cawing of a crow. The word quark comes from the standard English verb "quark," meaning "to caw, croak," and also from the dialectal verb quawk, meaning "to caw, screech like a bird." It is easy to see why Joyce chose the word, but why should it have become the name for a group of hypothetical subatomic particles proposed as the fundamental units of matter? Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist who proposed this name for these particles, said in a private letter of June 27, 1978, to the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary that he had been influenced by Joyce's words: "The allusion to three quarks seemed perfect" (originally there were only three subatomic quarks). Gell-Mann, however, wanted to pronounce the word with (ô) not (ä), as Joyce seemed to indicate by rhyming words in the vicinity such as Mark. Gell-Mann got around that "by supposing that one ingredient of the line 'Three quarks for Muster Mark' was a cry of 'Three quarts for Mister ... ' heard in H.C. Earwicker's pub," a plausible suggestion given the complex punning in Joyce's novel. It seems appropriate that this perplexing and humorous novel should have supplied the term for particles that come in six "flavors" and three "colors."

12. utopia

An ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects.

Coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 as the title of his book that described an imaginary island representing the perfect society. It literally means "no place," from Greek ou not + topos a place.

13. dystopia

An imaginary society in which social or technological trends have culminated in a greatly diminished quality of life or degradation of values.

Coined by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century: from dys- + Utopia.

14. doublethink

Deliberate, perverse, or unconscious acceptance or promulgation of conflicting facts, principles, etc.

Coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984 (1949).

15. agnostic

One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God.

Agnostics do not deny the existence of God—instead, they hold that one cannot know for certain whether or not God exists. The term agnostic was coined by the 19th-century British scientist Thomas H. Huxley, who believed that only material phenomena were objects of exact knowledge. He made up the word from the prefix a-, meaning "without, not," as in amoral, and the noun Gnostic. Gnostic is related to the Greek word gnōsis, "knowledge," which was used by early Christian writers to mean "higher, esoteric knowledge of spiritual things"; hence, Gnostic referred to those with such knowledge. In coining the term agnostic, Huxley was considering as "Gnostics" a group of his fellow intellectuals—"ists," as he called them—who had eagerly embraced various doctrines or theories that explained the world to their satisfaction. Because he was a "man without a rag of a label to cover himself with," Huxley coined the term agnostic for himself, its first published use being in 1870.

16. scapegoat

A person made to bear the blame for others.

From escape + goat, coined by William Tyndale to translate Biblical Hebrew azāzēl, mistakenly thought to mean "goat that escapes."

17. teetotal

Of, relating to, or practicing complete abstinence from alcoholic beverages.

Allegedly coined in 1833 by Richard Turner, English advocate of total abstinence from alcoholic liquors; probably from "total," with emphatic reduplication.

18. dynamite

A high explosive, originally consisting of nitroglycerin mixed with an absorbent substance, now with ammonium nitrate usually replacing the nitroglycerin.

The Nobel Prizes were established by the Swedish chemist and industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833–1896) with funds from his immense personal fortune, amassed in part through the manufacture of explosives and armaments. Nobel was the inventor of dynamite—he had discovered that the highly explosive chemical compound nitroglycerine could be made easier to transport and handle if it was mixed with an inert substance. To name his mixture, Nobel invented the word "dynamite." Originally coined in Swedish in the form dynamit, the word was compounded from Greek dunamis, "power," and the Swedish suffix -it, which corresponds to the English suffix -ite used to form the names of rocks, minerals, commercial products, and other substances. Greek dunamis also gave us words such as "dynamic" and "dynamo." Dunamis is related to the Greek verb dunasthai, "to be able," from which comes English "dynasty," denoting a family or group that wields power over several generations.

19. synchronicity

Synchronism of events that appear to be connected but have no demonstrable causal relationship.

Coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, from synchronic + -ity.

20. vitamin

Any of a group of substances that are essential, in small quantities, for the normal functioning of metabolism in the body. They cannot usually be synthesized in the body but they occur naturally in certain foods: insufficient supply of any particular vitamin results in a deficiency disease.

To help the cells in our bodies work properly, it is essential that we get a daily supply of vitamins. This link between vitamins and good health was made in the early 1900s by the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk. Funk was studying beriberi, a disease that damages nerves, when he discovered an organic compound that prevented this illness. He named the compound vitamine, or "life amine," a name that stuck even though most vitamins do not include the type of chemical called an amine. Today we know that vitamins help keep our bodies strong and healthy, in addition to preventing a variety of illnesses. But because our bodies cannot produce these compounds, we must get them in the foods we eat as part of a well-balanced diet.

21. panoramic

An unbroken view of an entire surrounding area.

Coined by British painter Robert Barker (1739–1806) to describe his cycloramic painting of Edinburgh, displayed in London in a specially built hall called the Panorama: pan- + Greek horāma, sight (from horān, to see).

22. folklore

The traditional beliefs, myths, tales, and practices of a people, transmitted orally.

Coined by English antiquary William John Thoms (1803–85).

23. witticism

A clever or witty remark.

From "witty." Coined by John Dryden (1677) by analogy with "criticism."

24. goop

A sticky wet viscous substance.

Coined by G. Burgess (1866-1951), American humorist.

25. pandemonium

A condition or scene of noisy confusion.

Coined by John Milton as the name of the capital of Hell in his epic poem Paradise Lost. From Greek pan- + daimōn, lesser god, demon.

26. catch-22

A situation in which any move that a person can make will lead to trouble.

From a military regulation in a novel of the same name (1961) by US novelist Joseph Heller.

27. spoof

A satirical imitation; a parody or send-up.

After "Spoof," the name of a game involving trickery and nonsense invented by Arthur Roberts (1852-1933), British comedian.

28. factoid

A piece of unreliable information believed to be true because of the way it is presented or repeated in print.

Coined by the novelist Norman Mailer from fact + -oid (as in android, humanoid), in reference to his fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe.

29. malaprop

The unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound, especially when creating a ridiculous effect.

"She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile" and "He is the very pineapple of politeness" are two of the absurd pronouncements from Mrs. Malaprop that made her name synonymous with ludicrous misuse of language. A character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals (1775), Mrs. Malaprop habitually uses words that are malapropos—that is, inappropriate, as in allegory for alligator and pineapple for pinnacle. She makes some of her most outrageous blunders while boasting of her eloquence: "If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" For such memorable abuses of the language, Mrs. Malaprop has been enshrined in the words "malaprop" and "malapropism."

30. meme

A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

Coined by British evolutionary biologist and ethologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Modeled on "gene," "meme" is a shortening of mimeme, from Greek mimēma, something imitated, from mimeisthai, to imitate.

What are your favorite invented words?

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