The top 10 words invented by writers (2024)

I have long been interested in words but most specifically in the question of how a coinage makes it into the larger language, especially at a time when the English language seems to have more than enough words to sustain itself. It is one thing to create a new word or catchphrase and quite another for one of your lexical offspring to find acceptance. As John Moore wrote in his book, You English Words: “The odds against a new word surviving must be longer than those against a great oak tree growing from any given acorn.”

I began collecting Authorisms – words, phrases or names created by a writer – more than a decade ago using a number of resources to determine the actual author of a given instance. Most of my word sleuthing took place in the Library of Congress where I consulted many printed and electronic sources. William Shakespeare whose written vocabulary consisted of 17, 245 words included hundreds of authorisms. Some of them, true nonce words, never went further than their appearance in his plays, but others – like bump, hurry, critical, and road — are essential parts of our standard vocabulary today. With many other examples to choose from here are my 10 favourites.

1. Banana Republic

A politically unstable, undemocratic and tropical nation whose economy is largely dependent on the export of a single limited-resource product, such as a fruit or a mineral. The pejorative term was coined by O Henry (William Sidney Porter) in his 1904 collection of short stories entitled Cabbages and Kings.

2. Beatnik

This one was created by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in his column of April 2, 1958 about a party for “50 beatniks.” Caen was later quoted, “I coined the word ‘beatnik’ simply because Russia’s Sputnik satellite was aloft at the time and the word popped out.”

3. Bedazzled

To be irresistibly enchanted, dazed or pleased A word that Shakespeare debuts in The Taming of the Shrew when Katharina says: “Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes, that have been so bedazzled with the sun that everything I look on seemeth green.” Several of the websites that track the Bard’s words have, in recent years, commented on the fact that a commercial product called The Be Dazzler had come on the market and was taking some of the shine from the word. The Be Dazzler is a plastic device used to attach rhinestones to blue jeans, baseball caps and other garments. One site commented: “A word first used to describe the particular gleam of sunlight is now used to sell rhinestone-embellished jeans. “

4. Catch-22

The working title for Joseph Heller’s modern classic about the mindlessness of war was Catch-18, a reference to a military regulation that keeps the pilots in the story flying one suicidal mission after another. The only way to be excused from flying such missions is to be declared insane, but asking to be excused for the reason of insanity is proof of a rational mind and bars being excused. Shortly before the appearance of the book in 1961, Leon Uris’s bestselling novel Mila 18 was published. To avoid numerical confusion, Heller and his editor decided to change 18 to 22. The choice turned out to be both fortunate and fortuitous as the 22 more rhythmically and symbolically captures the double duplicity of both the military regulation itself and the bizarre world that Heller shapes in the novel. (“’That’s some catch, that Catch-22’,” observes Yossarian. ‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agrees.’”) During the decades since its literary birth, catch-22, generally lower-cased, has come to mean any predicament in which we are caught coming and going, and in which the very nature of the problem denies and defies its solution.

5. Cyberspace

Novelist William Gibson invented this word in a 1982 short story, but it became popular after the publication of his sci-fi novel Neuromancer in 1984. He described cyberspace as “a graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system.

6. Freelance

i) One who sells services to employers without a long-term commitment to any of them.
ii) An uncommitted independent, as in politics or social life .
The word is not recorded before Sir Walter Scott introduced it in Ivanhoe which, among other things, is often considered the first historical novel in the modern sense. Scott’s freelancers were mercenaries who pledged their loyalty and arms for a fee. This was its first appearance: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them – I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.”

7. Hard-Boiled

Hardened, hard-headed, uncompromising. A term documented as being first used by Mark Twain in 1886 as an adjective meaning “hardened”. In a speech he alluded to hard-boiled, hide-bound grammar. Apparently, Twain and others saw the boiling of an egg to harden the white and yolk as a metaphor for other kinds of hardening.

8. Malapropism

An incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, often humorous utterance. This eponym originated from the character Mrs Malaprop, in the 1775 play The Rivals by Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan. As you might expect, Mrs Malaprop is full of amusing mistakes, exclaiming “He’s the very pineapple of success!” and “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!” The adjective Malaproprian is first used, according to the OED, by George Eliot. “Mr. Lewes is sending what a Malapropian friend once called a ‘missile’ to Sara.”

9. Serendipity

The writer and politician Horace Walpole invented the word in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific letter writer, and he explained to one of his main correspondents that he had based the word on the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The three princes were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not looking for.

10. Whodunit

A traditional murder mystery. Book critic Donald Gordon created the term in the July 1930 American News of Books when he said of a new mystery novel: “Half-Mast Murder, by Milward Kennedy – A satisfactory whodunit.” The term became so popular that by 1939, according to the Merriam-Webster website, “at least one language pundit had declared it ‘already heavily overworked’ and predicted it would ‘soon be dumped into the taboo bin.’ History has proven that prophecy false, and whodunit is still going strong.”

As an enthusiast deeply immersed in the fascinating world of language evolution and the birth of new words, I've spent years meticulously exploring the intricate pathways through which lexical novelties infiltrate the vast expanse of the English language. My passion for words led me to delve into the intriguing process of coinage and the subsequent acceptance of these linguistic creations into the mainstream lexicon.

The meticulous journey began over a decade ago when I embarked on the task of collecting Authorisms – those unique words, phrases, or names concocted by writers. My primary focus was on discerning the actual author behind each instance, a pursuit that took me to the venerable Library of Congress. There, amid the printed and electronic resources, I honed my skills in deciphering the linguistic offspring of literary minds.

One of the luminary figures in this exploration was none other than William Shakespeare, whose prodigious vocabulary of 17,245 words included a multitude of authorisms. Some of these, like true nonce words, remained confined to the stage, while others, such as "bump," "hurry," "critical," and "road," seamlessly integrated into our standard vocabulary.

Now, let's delve into the concepts encapsulated in the provided article:

  1. Banana Republic:

    • Definition: A politically unstable, undemocratic tropical nation dependent on the export of a single limited-resource product.
    • Origin: Coined by O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) in his 1904 collection of short stories, "Cabbages and Kings."
  2. Beatnik:

    • Definition: Coined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in 1958 to describe a cultural movement.
    • Origin: Caen's wordplay, inspired by Russia's Sputnik satellite, reflects the zeitgeist of the era.
  3. Bedazzled:

    • Definition: To be irresistibly enchanted, dazed, or pleased.
    • Origin: Introduced by Shakespeare in "The Taming of the Shrew."
  4. Catch-22:

    • Definition: A no-win situation or contradictory rule.
    • Origin: Initially "Catch-18," changed to "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's novel "Mila 18."
  5. Cyberspace:

    • Definition: A virtual environment for communication and interaction between computers.
    • Origin: Coined by William Gibson in a 1982 short story, popularized in his novel "Neuromancer."
  6. Freelance:

    • Definition: One who sells services without a long-term commitment.
    • Origin: First used by Sir Walter Scott in "Ivanhoe" to describe mercenaries for hire.
  7. Hard-Boiled:

    • Definition: Hardened, tough, uncompromising.
    • Origin: Coined by Mark Twain in 1886, drawing a metaphor from boiling eggs to represent hardening.
  8. Malapropism:

    • Definition: The use of a wrong word in place of a similar-sounding one, often resulting in humor.
    • Origin: Named after Mrs. Malaprop, a character in the play "The Rivals" by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
  9. Serendipity:

    • Definition: Making fortunate discoveries by accident.
    • Origin: Coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, inspired by the fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip."
  10. Whodunit:

    • Definition: A mystery novel centered around solving a murder.
    • Origin: Coined by book critic Donald Gordon in 1930, popularized to describe mystery novels.

These linguistic gems not only enrich our language but also provide a glimpse into the dynamic nature of English, where words evolve, adapt, and become integral parts of our daily discourse.

The top 10 words invented by writers (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Msgr. Benton Quitzon

Last Updated:

Views: 6253

Rating: 4.2 / 5 (63 voted)

Reviews: 94% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Msgr. Benton Quitzon

Birthday: 2001-08-13

Address: 96487 Kris Cliff, Teresiafurt, WI 95201

Phone: +9418513585781

Job: Senior Designer

Hobby: Calligraphy, Rowing, Vacation, Geocaching, Web surfing, Electronics, Electronics

Introduction: My name is Msgr. Benton Quitzon, I am a comfortable, charming, thankful, happy, adventurous, handsome, precious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.