The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #7 January / February 2014
Words Made By Great Writers
by Elizabeth O'Neill
January / February 2014 | 

Editor's note: This article is a reprint from "Stories That Words Tell Us" By Elizabeth O'Neill. It was originally published in 1918.

As we have seen, languages while they are living are always growing and changing. We have seen how new names have been made as time went on. But many new words besides names are constantly being added to a language; for just as grown-up people use more words than children, and educated people use more words than uneducated or less educated people, so, too, nations use more words as time goes on. Every word must have been used a first time by some one; but of course it is impossible to know who were the makers of most words. Even new words cannot often be traced to their makers. Some one uses a new word, and others pick it up, and it passes into general use, while everybody has forgotten who made it.

But one very common way in which people learn to use new words is through reading the books of great writers. Sometimes these writers have made new words which their readers have seen to be very good, and have then begun to use themselves. Sometimes these great writers have made use of words which, though not new, were very rare, and immediately these words have become popular and ordinary words.

Thanks to Shakespeare, this isn't just a ball or a globe; it’s an orb.

The first great English poet was Chaucer, and the great English philologists feel sure that he must have made many new words and made many rare words common; but it is not easy to say that Chaucer made any particular word, because we do not know enough of the language which was in use at that time to say so. One famous phrase of Chaucer is often quoted now: "after the schole of Stratford-atte-Bowe," which he used in describing the French spoken by one of the Canterbury Pilgrims in his great poem. He meant that this was not pure French, but French spoken in the way and with the peculiar accent used at Stratford (a part of London near Bow Church). We now often use the phrase to describe any accent which is not perfect.

But though we do not know for certain which words Chaucer introduced, we do know that this first great English poet must have introduced many, especially French words; while Wyclif, the first great English prose writer, who translated part of the Bible from Latin into English, must also have given us many new words, especially from the Latin. The English language never changed so much after the time of Chaucer and Wyclif as it had done before.

The next really great English poet, Edmund Spenser, who wrote his wonderful poem, "The Faerie Queene," in the days of Queen Elizabeth, invented a great many new words. Some of these were seldom or never used afterwards, but some became ordinary English words. Sometimes his new words were partly formed out of old words which were no longer used. The word elfin, which became quite a common word, seems to have been invented by Spenser. He called a boasting knight by the name Braggadocio, and we still use the word braggadocio for vain boasting. A common expression which we often find used in romantic tales, and especially in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, derring-do, meaning "adventurous action," was first used by Spenser. He, however, took it from Chaucer, who had used it as a verb, speaking of the dorring-do (or "daring to do") that belonged to a knight. Spenser made a mistake in thinking Chaucer had used it as a noun, and used it so himself, making in this way quite a new and very well-sounding word.

Another word which Spenser made, and which is still sometimes used, was fool-happy; but other words, like idlesse, dreariment, drowsihead, are hardly seen outside his poetry. One reason for this is that Spenser was telling stories of quaint and curious things, and he used quaint and curious words which would not naturally pass into ordinary language.

Browne may not have given us electricity, but he did give us the name for it.

The next great name in English literature, and the greatest name of all, is Shakespeare. Shakespeare influenced the English language more than any writer before or since. First of all he made a great many new words, some very simple and others more elaborate, but all of them so suitable that they have become a part of the language. Such a common word as bump, which it would be difficult to imagine ourselves without, is first found in Shakespeare's writings. Hurry, which seems to be the only word to express what it stands for, seems also to have been made by Shakespeare, and also the common word dwindle. Some other words which Shakespeare made are lonely, orb (meaning "globe"), illumine, and home-keeping.

Many others might be quoted, but the great influence which Shakespeare had on the English language was not through the new words he made, but in the way his expressions and phrases came to be used as ordinary expressions. Many people are constantly speaking Shakespeare without knowing it, for the phrases he used were so exactly right and expressive that they have been repeated ever since, and often, of course, by people who do not know where they first came from. We can only mention a few of these phrases, such as "a Daniel come to judgment," which Shylock says to Portia in the "Merchant of Venice," and which is often used now sarcastically. From the same play comes the expression "pound of flesh," which is now often used to mean what a person knows to be due to him and is determined to have. "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," "to gild refined gold," "to wear one's heart upon one's sleeve,"--these and hundreds of other phrases are known by most people to come from Shakespeare; they are used by many who do not. They describe so splendidly so many things which are constantly happening that they seem to be the only or at least the best way of expressing the meanings they signify.

But not only have hundreds of Shakespeare's own words and phrases passed into everyday English, but the way in which he turned his phrases is often imitated. It was Shakespeare who used the phrase to "out-Herod Herod," and now this is a common form of speech. A statesman could now quite suitably use the phrase to "out-Asquith Asquith."

The next great poet after Shakespeare was Milton. He also gave us a great many new words and phrases, but not nearly so many as Shakespeare. Still there are a few phrases which are now so common that many people use them without even knowing that they come from Milton's writings. Some of these are "the human face divine," "to hide one's diminished head," "a dim religious light," "the light fantastic toe." It was Milton who invented the name pandemonium for the home of the devils, and now people regularly speak of a state of horrible noise and disorder as "a pandemonium." Many of those who use the expression have not the slightest idea of where it came from. The few words which we know were made by Milton are very expressive words. It was he who invented anarch for the spirit of anarchy or disorder, and no one has found a better word to express the idea. Satanic, moon-struck, gloom (to mean "darkness"), echoing, and bannered are some more well-known words invented by Milton.

Many of those who use the expression have not the slightest idea of where it came from.

It is not always the greatest writers who have given us the greatest number of new words. A great prose writer of the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, is looked upon as a classical writer, but his works are only read by a few, not like the great works of Shakespeare and Milton. Yet Sir Thomas Browne has given many new words to the English language. This is partly because he deliberately made many new words. One book of his gave us several hundreds of these words. The reason his new words remained in the language was that there was a real need of them.

Many seventeenth-century writers of plays invented hundreds of new words, but they tried to invent curious and queer-sounding words, and very few people liked them. These words never really became part of the English language. They are "one-man" words, to be found only in the writings of their inventors. Yet it was one of these fanciful writers who invented the very useful word dramatist for "a writer of plays."

But the words made by Sir Thomas Browne were quite different. Such ordinary words as medical, literary, and electricity were first used by him. He made many others too, not quite so common, but words which later writers and speakers could hardly do without.

12All pages
Revisited - Words Made By Great Writers
Writer: Elizabeth O'Neill
Moyan Brenn / Moyan_Brenn: Old books (title)
dsb nola: Large reflective bead
Elliott Brown / ell brown: Electricity pylons
Maxime Bonzi / Macsous: Diplomacy game
JDrewes (see Two "Don Quixote"-Style Windmills
Petey: Speed bump; Pandemonium painting; Shakespeare; Jabberwocky
• "Words Made By Great Writers" Stories That Words Tell Us Elizabeth O'Neill, M.A. London: T. C. & E. C. Jack, Ltd. 35 Paternoster Row, E.C. And Edinburgh 1918

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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