The English language is ever-evolving, and in our current era of instant communication, Twitter, and text-message shorthand, it just might be evolving more quickly than ever. We’ve always been fascinated by the way words are invented and take on meaning, and the way an obscure reference can become ubiquitous in an extremely short period of time — particularly those obscure references that come from our favorite manipulators of language, books. In the interest of pursuing that idea, we decided to take a look at a few everyday words that originated in literature, from plays to poems to novels to children’s books. Click through to see our a few of our favorite literary neologisms, and if you feel the urge, add to our highly incomplete list with your own favorites.
The words chortle and galumphing were both coined by Lewis Carroll in his nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” from his 1872 sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass. Though chortle — which means a laugh somewhere between a chuckle and a snort — is more common, galumphing — that is to say, galloping triumphantly — was picked up by Rudyard Kipling and made it into the dictionary, so that’s good enough for us.
If you were ever teased in high school for being a nerd, you probably have Dr. Seuss to blame — him and those pocket protectors you insisted on wearing. Seuss’s 1950 children’s book If I Ran the Zoo contains the first printed usage of the word, as a strange little animal one might like to keep locked up: “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo/A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!”
Though the attributions change from time to time based on dating and research, the common wisdom is that William Shakespeare invented over 1700 words, many of which we still use today. Some of our favorites: bump, first used in Romeo and Juliet, swagger, first used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, obscene, first used in Love’s Labor’s Lost, and luggage, first used in King Henry IV, Part I.
The word yahoo can mean a lot of things today — something a cartoon character yells when excited, what your grandmother calls the rowdy kids you hang out with who never take off their shoes in the house, that online company overshadowed by Google — but it originated as the name of a Neanderthal-ish race of people in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, who sound rather more unpleasant than any of the aforementioned modern usages: “The Fore-feet of the Yahoo differed from my Hands in nothing else, but the Length of the Nails, the Coarseness and Brownness of the Palms, and the Hairiness on the Backs.” Yahoo?
Do you grok? If you do, you know that this word was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his best-selling 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. While the book stipulates the term “means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience,” it’s morphed into a geeky way to say “you get it?”
Though the term cyberspace seems a little out of date now (isn’t everyone just calling it “the internets”?) the term was coined by William Gibson in his 1982 story “Burning Crome” and brought to the mainstream in his seminal 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. The book describes the term thusly: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”
If you’ve ever described anything as gargantuan, you’ve referenced the hero of French Renaissance author François Rabelais’s 16th century series of novels entitled The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a satirical story about a giant and his son. They were, needless to say, enormous. And hungry.
We all stumble into malapropisms from time to time, but we might not know that the word originated from the character Mrs. Malaprop, from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. As you might expect, Mrs. Malaprop is full of amusing mistakes, exclaiming “He’s the very pineapple of success!” and “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!”