Authors who made their mark with made-up words

“Pandemonium,” “critical,” “assassinate,” and “eventful” all came from written literature before being widely adapted in spoken English.

Staff

Which author has invented the most English words? William Shakespeare might seem to be the obvious champion, since he is famous for the creativity of his language, and he used more than 20,000 distinct words in his plays and poems. He has challengers for the title of No. 1 neologist, and the winner depends on how we define what counts as inventing a new word.

Sometimes it’s easy to see that a writer has coined a new word. When John Milton needed a name for Satan’s capital in his 1667 poem “Paradise Lost,” he put together the Greek pan- (“all”) and daimon (“demon”) to make Pandemonium. Readers thought this was not only a fitting name for the capital of hell (“all the demons”) but also a useful description for the chaos that reigns there. Pandemonium now means “a wild uproar (as because of anger or excitement in a crowd of people),” according to Merriam-Webster.

Authors invent lots of words that don’t catch on, though. Lewis Carroll is famous for these nonce words, coined for a particular occasion but never adopted into general use. His poem “Jabberwocky” includes, among other words, frumious, mimsy, and slithy. These are recognizably English words, and were given definitions by Carroll – “fuming and furious,” “miserable and flimsy,” and “lithe and slimy,” respectively – but are not found in dictionaries. Should nonce words count toward an author’s total? 

Then there are the majority of words “coined” by authors, which involve category switches – transforming adjectives into nouns, nouns into verbs, and so on – rather than dreaming up completely new terms. Hundreds of words like critical (from critic), assassinate (from assassin), and eventful (from event) are attributed to Shakespeare. Do these count as well?  

Shakespeare also gets credit for as many as 1,000 words that were already common in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, simply because he is so famous. When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were compiling quotes in the 19th century, they were familiar with his plays. If they couldn’t find any earlier instances in libraries and archives, they assumed that England’s greatest playwright must have coined it. Now that the internet has made it so easy to search through large volumes of text, lexicographers are discovering Shakespeare was not, in fact, the first recorded user of many of the words attributed to him. 

The answer to the question, then, remains a rather disappointing “it depends.” Shakespeare, Milton, Ben Jonson, Charles Dickens – each of these authors coined hundreds of words, and who invented the most is “neither here nor there” (once thought to be Shakespeare, now attributed to Arthur Golding). 

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