Any 90s kid—sorry, 90s adult—will remember Andrew Clements‘ Frindle, the classic middle grade tale of a defiant boy who invents a word just to spite his by-the-book English teacher. (The word, naturally, is Frindle.) Since this is obviously silly, made-up nonsense, the school intervenes to reinforce the notion that only the dictionary determines the proper use of language. But wait, you say, aren’t all words invented? Well, that’s exactly what we’re getting at. Here are just a few of the many words that authors had the good sense to make up.
Theodor Giesel, code name Dr. Seuss, is known for being hyper intelligent, politically astute, and child friendly. It is then especially surprising that Seuss would invent the number one insult for too-smart kids, the bane of the middle-school hallway—nerd. One of the original spellings of nerd is knurd, a word for someone who doesn’t like fun and also ‘drunk’ spelled backwards. Those young If I Ran the Zoo readers might not be sure what to make of this—you’re a nerd if you’re ever sober? Probably not.
We all know Shakespeare invented between four and five hundred words—and that’s only counting terms still in use today. Without his strong knowledge of Latin roots and his literary mind, we would have Twilight without ‘bloodsucking,’ Divergent without ‘dauntless,’ Gossip Girl without ‘gossip.’ (An alternate title might have been Rich People Lying to Each Other.) Shakespeare’s coinage of the word bedazzled, first appearing in The Taming of the Shrew, is an excellent case study of the way language evolves over time. While initially referring to sunlight striking particularly vibrant eyes, the word now calls to mind badly-rhinestoned jeans—arguably, the only way to rhinestone jeans.
You may not have heard of Gelett Burgess, but you’ve definitely heard the word ‘blurb,’ the most common term to describe the text snippets on a book jacket. The word has a surprising origin—the name of a sexy lady. In 1907, Burgess created the character Belinda Blurb, an alluring woman whose spot on the book cover was supposed to boost its sales. While there’s nothing particularly funny about the word itself, it is amusing to imagine that Belinda Blurb was the most titillating name Burgess could invent for his fictional woman. (Since it was 1907, perhaps we’re just lucky her name wasn’t more like Ermengarde.)