The Merriam-Webster dictionary contains around 470,000 words. Where do they all come from? And why can we still not find the one we’re looking for? Writer and editor Barbara Wallraff explores the creation of new words.
The most famous coiner of words may be William Shakespeare. But, as Wallraff notes, this aspect of his reputation is complicated. He was writing at a time before we collected all English words into dictionaries. It’s possible that some of the words we think of as his—besmirch, impede, and rant, among many others—were already familiar in his time, and we only credit them to him because they haven’t survived in any earlier writings.
What we do know is since Shakespeare’s time, we haven’t stopped creating words. Sometimes the point of a neologism is to convey nuance. That’s why, Wallraff suggests, we may say “myocardial infarction” instead of “heart attack,” or “bling-bling” instead of “fancy jewelry.” (Note that she was writing in 2006.)
And then there’s the creation of words just for the fun of it. Among the first literary examples is the poem Jabberwocky, found in Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll’s 1871 sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Few of these words caught on—“brillig,” for example, hasn’t moved into general usage. But one word from the poem did: chortle—with its suggestion of “chuckle” and “snort”—was useful enough and obvious enough in its meaning that it ended up in the dictionary.
Carroll also gave us a helpful word for discussing new words: portmanteau, which, prior to the publication of Through the Looking Glass, meant “two-compartment suitcase.” Humpty Dumpty used it to explain the mysterious vocabulary of Jabberwocky to Alice: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
In 1914, writer Gelett Burgess published Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You have Always Needed. Culp, he decided, meant “a fond delusion, an imaginary attribute,” while “nulkin” was “the core or inside history of any occurrence” or “a true, but secret explanation.” Of all his new words, the only one that really caught on was “blurb.”
Later efforts at something similar included comedian Rich Hall’s sniglets—such as “profanitype,” meaning the exclamation points, asterisks, and other symbols used by cartoonists to replace curse words—and Wallraff’s own “Word Fugitives” column in The Atlantic, in which writers asked for and received suggestions about words that ought to exist.
Managing the column, Wallraff found people sought words for a range of concepts. What do you call it when you’re so focused on not saying the worst possible thing that you end up doing just that? Shouldn’t there be a word in English for the sound a camel makes? While words for these ideas might be useful, ultimately, Wallraff writes, that’s not really the point.
“Coining words is like sex in that it’s necessary to our species,” she writes. “But rarely do people engage in it for the sake of keeping humankind going. We do it because it’s fun.”