7 Great Words and Phrases Coined by H. L. Mencken

A septet of great words invented by the American wit, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken, to give him his full name) was born on this day in 1880, so to toast this great American journalist, critic, and all-round wit, we’ve put together a list of seven words and phrases he is thought to have originated. Fans of word-origins may also enjoy our pick of the most enjoyable and amusing words P. G. Wodehouse invented.

BOOBOISIE: In 1922, Mencken coined the word ‘booboisie’ for uncultured and uneducated members of the general public, i.e. ‘boobs’, modelling the word after the more famous ‘bourgeoisie’.

SMUTHOUND: Mencken coined the word ‘smuthound’ for one who is given to censoring bad language or smut, especially when found in works of literature. In a letter of December 1927, he listed ‘smuthound’ as one of his favourite linguistic coinages.

A man who can laugh, if only at himself, is never really miserable. – H. L. Mencken

H L MenckenMONKEY TRIAL: Mencken coined the term ‘monkey trial’ to refer to the Scopes trial in 1925, when US schoolteacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution at a Tennessee high school. (At the time, Tennessee state law declared it illegal to teach human evolution in a state-funded school.) Which leads us to our next word…

BIBLE BELT: H. L. Mencken also came up with the phrase ‘Bible belt’ in the wake of the aforementioned Scopes ‘monkey’ trial, with the term making its debut in print in the phrase ‘Bible and Lynching Belt’ in the American Mercury in 1926 (where it is specifically linked with Jackson, Mississippi). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as ‘a designation of those parts of the United States reputed to be fanatically puritan or fundamentalist’. This was another of Mencken’s personal favourites among his neologisms.

OMBIBULOUS: Mencken coined the word ‘ombibulous’ to refer to someone who will drink anything. He used the word to describe himself. ‘I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all’ is a line attributed to him. (The language of drinking and drunkenness is a rich one, as we’ve previously revealed.)

I’ve made it a rule never to drink by daylight and never to refuse a drink after dark. – H. L. Mencken

BIBLIOBIBULI: And sticking with the bibulous, H. L. Mencken came up with a word for people who read too much, and this is it, from the Latin words for ‘book’ and ‘drink’. We were partly inspired by Mencken’s bookish coinage to come up with the term bibliosmia, linking books with another sensory experience.

GOOSE-STEPPER: Mencken coined the phrase ‘goose-stepper’ in 1923, in his Prejudices. He describes the American people – he was American himself, of course – as ‘the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages’. Mencken never particularly cared whether he personally stepped out of line with popular opinion.

Credit where credit’s due: we discovered several of these great coinages thanks to Paul Dickson’s brilliant book Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers. We’d recommend it to word-lovers, especially fans of literary coinages. Check out our interesting word and language facts too.

Image: H. L. Mencken by O. Richard Reid, via Wikimedia Commons.

9 thoughts on “7 Great Words and Phrases Coined by H. L. Mencken”

  1. We have one of the world’s great Smuthounds buried here in Swansea. Thomas Bowdler published expurgated versions of Shakespeare’s plays and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ‘to make them more suitable for women and children.’ He gave his name to the verb to bowdlerise.


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