In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Paul Dickson’s Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers
All words have to start somewhere, of course. But many of them are of anonymous authorship. The small amount of success I’ve had in getting the word ‘bibliosmia’ into general circulation has demonstrated that, even if a word has a clear origin and originator, this is soon of less consequence than the usefulness of the word itself. Yet some words do have clear origins and clear creators. Sometimes, a famous word was also coined by a famous person. And it’s of little surprise that writers have been especially proficient at coining new words.
Paul Dickson’s Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers, is the kind of book that was bound to get written eventually, and in a way it’s surprising that it took until 2014 for someone to do so. Dickson offers, if you like, a lexicon with a difference, running the whole gamut of author-coined words and phrases from ‘A man got to do what he got to do’ through to ‘zombification’. There’s also an epilogue and an appendix, which sees Dickson addressing the far-from-simple question of how many words and phrases Shakespeare, often considered the master neologist of the English language, actually coined. He gets the credit for a vast number, but this is in part a hangover from when we had a less full picture of Elizabethan and Jacobean writing aside from Shakespeare and his most famous contemporaries, and when the Oxford English Dictionary project was in its early stages. Where once he got the credit for ‘alligator’, we now know better.
But Authorisms is full of words that we can confidently ascribe to particular writers, and there are some surprises in store – not just because of who coined what, but because some of the words are delightful, and not as widely known as they perhaps should be. It was edifying to learn that alogotransiphobia, denoting a ‘fear of being caught on public transportation with nothing to read’, was created in 1992 by the novelist George V. Higgins (1939-99) along with the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe, Martin F. Nolan, and an Irish-born saloon-keeper named Thomas Costello. Sometimes word-making is a collaborative enterprise.
Other surprises include the origin of the term Beat in Beat Generation: according to Jack Kerouac, the ‘Beat’ is actually derived from the word ‘beatitude’, meaning ‘blessedness’. Winston Churchill didn’t coin the phrase iron curtain; the socialist writer Ethel Snowden first used it in a 1920 book about Bolshevik Russia. Dickson also includes the curious origin of the word factoid, which Norman Mailer coined in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe (biography, while we’re at it, was first used by John Dryden); Mailer intended the word to mean ‘fact-like’, or something that appears true but isn’t. In the last forty-five years, however, the word’s meaning has been distorted so it simply means ‘little fact’.
Authorisms also reveals the fascinating origin of the term blurb to describe the back-cover description on a book. The American author Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) gets the credit for coining blurb in 1907, when he adorned a book jacket with a drawing of a beautiful young woman whom he named Miss Belinda Blurb. In 1914, Burgess defined the word as ‘A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial.’ The word was soon taken up everywhere in the publishing industry, with few now aware of its origins in a titillating illustration rather than a written description per se.
Unfortunately, sometimes Dickson isn’t entirely accurate and this book contains the occasional error. Anecdotage, which he ascribes to the American historian, novelist, and film director Rupert Hughes (1872-1956) was actually in use in the nineteenth century, as Benjamin Disraeli’s use of it demonstrates. The Oxford English Dictionary, which should have been Dickson’s go-to point here, provides 1835 and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for the earliest use of the word to mean, humorously, ‘garrulous old age’, but the straighter sense of ‘a collection of anecdotes’ is even older, dating from 1823. But it’s fair to say that such slips are few and far between.
And elsewhere – and this is one of the joys of tracing word-histories – Dickson manages to add to the body of knowledge gathered in the Oxford English Dictionary and find a precedent for a word, tracing its origins back to before the dictionary’s earliest citation. Such is the case with ‘banana republic’, attested from 1935 in the OED, but which Dickson here manages to locate in a 1904 collection of short stories, Cabbages and Kings, by the prolific American writer of short fiction, O. Henry. Interestingly, Dickson tells us, O. Henry wrote the story in question while living in Honduras, where he was evading embezzlement charges in the United States.
Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers is a mine of such stuff for the word-lover, and the literature-lover who wants to learn more about how words and phrases have been coined and shaped over the centuries.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.