Children's Literature, Novels, Poetry

Ten Words We Got from Literature

Often you hear, fifth-hand, someone say, ‘Shakespeare gave us the word puking’ or ‘Milton coined the word dreary’. The problem with this is, of course, that we cannot be sure that those writers actually invented these words – they may merely have written the texts containing the earliest surviving record of the words in question. (Or, there may be earlier uses of the words out there, waiting to be discovered; it’s just that more lexicographers and philologists are rereading As You Like It than are reading ‘A Treatise on Vomitting and Related Emettic Excurssions, 1588’.) Shakespeare may have been the first one to think of putting ‘leap’ and ‘frog’ together to form ‘leapfrog’; but wouldn’t his audience have wondered what the bally hell he was blathering on about? So, here are ten words which we can say, with some certainty, originated in works of literature. Enjoy.


1. Blatant. Used by Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99) in his epic poem The Faerie Queene, this word originally referred to a thousand-tongued beast. Since then it has come to mean something that is glaringly obvious and in-your-face, like an elephant in the room (to use another idiom involving a large animal).

2. Chortle. Also known these days as the name of a comedy website, this word originated in Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘Jabberwocky’, which was included in the 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass. The word is a blend of ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’, describing the noise made by somebody who manages to laugh while utilising their nose in the process. This sort of word-formation (which also gives us brunch and motel, not to mention chillax) is sometimes known as a …

3. Portmanteau word. Also from Through the Looking-Glass, this term refers to the process of blending two existing words together to form a new word (e.g. ‘bromance’, to proffer another recent coinage). As Humpty-Dumpty explains to Alice, ‘You see, it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed into one word.’ ‘Portmanteau word’ is a term sometimes used by professional linguists, although ‘blend’ is more common. A portmanteau is a bag that opens into two halves – hence Humpty’s use of the term – that was used in the nineteenth century, often to carry clothes (‘portmanteau’ comes from the French meaning ‘carry the cloak’).

4. Galumph. Also from – you guessed it – Through the Looking-Glass, and also – right again! – a portmanteau word. This time the word refers to the Jabberwock of the poem’s title (the beast is the Jabberwock, the poem ‘Jabberwocky’), describing its movement (‘galumphing’ being a blend of ‘gallop’ and ‘triumph’). One final little titbit about Carroll’s book: it was ‘first published’ in both 1871 and 1872. This is weird but true: it appeared in 1871, but it was postdated to 1872, and this means that you can claim it was technically published in either year (depending on your interpretation of that word ‘technically’). The same fate would befall Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899/1900).

5. Airy-fairy. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92) may have gone on to become one of the greatest poets of the Victorian age – he was Poet Laureate for a record 42 years – but his early poetry met with mixed reviews. One early review borrowed a phrase invented by Tennyson in his poem ‘Lilian’ and used it as a derogatory expression to describe Alfred’s own verse: the opening lines of the poem, ‘Airy fairy Lilian …’, provided the critic with the wishy-washiness of ‘airy-fairy’ and the phrase hasn’t looked back since. And while we’re on that …

6. Namby-pamby. From the poet Ambrose Philips (1674-1749), writer of rather wet, babyish verses which he dedicated to his friends’ and patrons’ infant children. Philips’s poetry earned some praise, but his fellow writers – notably Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift – lost no opportunity to ridicule Philips for his childish doggerel. Another poet, Henry Carey, wrote a scathing verse about Philips, describing him as ‘Namby Pamby’ in a poem of 1725 (from ‘Amby’, childish form of ‘Ambrose’). Since then, anything a bit wet and weak-willed and infantile has been branded ‘namby-pamby’. Poor Ambrose!

7. Mentor. Describing a sort of guide and adviser to a younger, less experienced person, the word ‘mentor’ is known throughout the land these days. However, it was originally the name of a character in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Mentor, in Greek mythology, looked after Telemachus when Telly’s father, Odysseus, went off to fight in the Trojan War. Since then, we’ve been talking about mentoring programmes and X Factor mentors and all other manner of mentoring.

8. Thoughtcrime. A useful word thought up by George Orwell for his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The idea that you can be convicted for even thinking of committing a crime – which is itself threatened in the ‘Ten Commandments’ – is one which Orwell, scourge of totalitarianism, loathed and sought to depict through the figure of Big Brother. As Hamlet says, ‘Who shall ‘scape whipping?’

9. Pandemonium. Okay, so this one is from Milton, from his great epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). But given the specific way this word was formed, we can be pretty sure it was an original coinage dreamt up by Milton himself. Meaning literally ‘all demons’, Pandemonium was Satan’s capital city in Milton’s poem. Since then, and given its connotations of chaos and evil, the word has come to mean any disordered confusion, but it retains its demonic glint in the word ‘pandemonium’. We just don’t hear it any more.

10. Yahoo! Known as a homepage, mailing service, and search engine on that there interweb, ‘yahoo’ started life as the name for a race of brutish humans in Jonathan Swift’s celebrated fantasy satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726). From there, it went on to refer to any hooligan or noisy, loutish individual, and is these days perhaps most commonly encountered with ‘.com’ after it. Cheers, Jonny Swift. Nice word.

Consider your language odyssey with our sequel of ten more words we got from literature and our fascinating facts about words and the English language.


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  6. Reblogged this on The Treasure Trove and commented:
    Just had to share this..! Check out their site to the sequel!

  7. Pingback: Ten More Words We Got from Literature | interesting literature | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!

  8. Pingback: Ten More Words We Got from Literature | interesting literature

  9. Great post. I have one word to add.The term ‘robot’ appeared first in Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In slavic languages ‘rabota’ means hard labor.

  10. This is interesting stuff! Thank you.

  11. I enjoyed this (as well as your other posts). Thanks for wisely and wittily making the distinction between “Shakespeare invented this word” and “The earliest citation etymologists have found for this word is in Shakespeare.”

    And thanks for following the adventures of Lexie Kahn, Word Snooper.

    • Thanks, WordSnooper! I’m loving your blog: witty, informative, and hugely interesting, especially for one who loves word histories (and everyone should). I await your next posts with interest. IL

  12. I was reading the interesting origin of the word “quiz”, but I guess it’s not from literature. I’m sure there would be others. “Grundyism; serendipity; malapropism? Also words from US political speech writers & song writers, like “groovy.”

    • Ah, ‘quiz’ – yes, I’ve often wondered if that story is true, but many seem to dispute it. (I’ve often wanted to get my students to spread a new word around campus, to see if it would catch on.) Most believe it may be from ‘inquisition’, I think, which is less interesting, alas! Serendipity (which we touched upon in our first post, on Gothic literature) and malapropism are both good ones and may make an appearance in the sequel blog (a ‘blequel’?). Thanks for the suggestions!

  13. I love this. Etymology makes me happy.

  14. Thanks for posting this! I find this kind of stuff SOOO COOL! I’m in love with your blog. Looking forward to reading more :)

  15. Brilliant! Cheers for that fine fact; I wasn’t aware of it. The OED gives an earlier sense meaning simply ‘a small nymph’, but the modern sense is indeed inaugurated by Nabokov. Bless him.

  16. Fantastic list! I also remember reading somewhere that Dr. Seuss coined the word “nerd.” The list of gratitude for him goes on and on…

    • Thanks! And that’s a good point – we tweeted (at @InterestingLit) about Dr. Seuss and the word ‘nerd’ the other day, but foolishly omitted that gem from this list. Maybe it can lead list number two…? (If we can find nine other juicy literary word origins, and enough for a second blog post, that is.)

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  19. Yes, enjoyed this post too! What a lot of words we are indebted to Carroll for.

    A couple of thoughts: ‘yahoo’ must surely derive from the Hebrew name Jacob (compare the pronunciation of the last element of Binyamin Netanyahu’s last name), though I would have thought that Esau the ‘hairy man’ would have been a more appropriate moniker for Swift’s creatures. Charles Kingsley has similar savages in his ‘The Water-Babies’ called the Doasyoulikes, who had degenerated, almost de-evolved, from civilised humans.

    And your mention of airy-fairy and namby-pamby reminds of similar rhyming doublets, such as Peter Pan’s friend Wendy (derived from ‘friendy-wendy’) and Shakespeare’s ‘skimble-skamble’ referring to Welsh prophecies.

    Looking forward to reading your other posts now…

    • Good stuff – I hadn’t thought of the Jacob connection (‘holder of the heel’, I believe?) but the Netanyahu link is certainly suggestive. I wondered whether it was simply onomatopoeic, like a sailor’s halloo, but it’s not something I’ve looked further into yet. If you’re interested in the Wendy-Peter Pan link, then do see our previous post (if you haven’t already): Thanks for the comment!

      • Didn’t know that Wendy could have been a shortening for Gwendolen; here in Wales, most names beginning with gwen- tend to be shortened to Gwen so that particular derivation must surely apply only across the border! Assume that the masculine version may have derived from names like Wendell. Thanks for the link to that other post; I can see I’ve got some way to go! Chris

  20. Nice post, by the way!

  21. Item 8. above concludes with a Hamlet quote. The word ‘scape loses the first letter (and therefore syllable) in order to conform to the metre. This practice of truncation from the front is known as Aphaeresis.
    Just thought I’d mention it, since we are in the realms of rarefied education.