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The Fascinating World of Authorisms: Words Created by Writers

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 Read the rest of this entry

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A Dictionary of Unusual and Preposterous Words

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revels in the arcane lexicography of Mrs Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words

The word deboswellize means ‘to deprecate someone in a biography’. It’s derived from James Boswell, the celebrated biographer of Samuel Johnson. Anaxiphilia means ‘the act of falling in love with someone entirely inappropriate, by someone who should know better’. More emotive, and dripping with unspoken and tragic hopelessness, is the word anacampserote, which refers to ‘something which can bring back a lost love.’

None of these three words is likely to be on the tongues (or in the minds) of the average reader, and they were new to me until I recently encountered them, in Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual Obscure and Preposterous Words: Gathered from Numerous and Diverse Authoritative Sources, which may just be the most endlessly fascinating and entertaining lexicon I’ve yet encountered. (I’ll except the Oxford English Dictionary here, and possibly Johnson’s dictionary, on the grounds that they are beyond question in the fascination stakes for the sheer vastness of their achievement.) Read the rest of this entry

Reverend Spooner, Father of the Spoonerism

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the life of the man immortalised by the spoonerism

Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was a physically striking man. An albino with pink skin and white hair, he became affectionately known as the Child by students at New College, the Oxford college of which Spooner became warden in 1903. (His wife Frances became known as the Madonna, hence their inevitable collective nickname of Madonna and Child.) By all accounts, Spooner was a kindly man who insisted, in the face of indignant opposition, that the college’s war memorial should list the names of the German dead alongside the college members who had given their lives in the Great War.

But this has all been lost from the popular consciousness – if it ever resided there – and Spooner’s name and legacy have firmly centred on the ‘spoonerism’ – a word attested from The Globe magazine in London from 1900, and defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words’. Interestingly, though, the OED’s next citation for the word ‘spoonerism’, from a Notes and Queries article of 1923, suggests that Spooner may have given his name to a word-game that was much older than him: Read the rest of this entry