The chaos theory of word creation

The author of The Hidden History of Coined Words on the origins of Oz, quark and more

In 1754 Horace Walpole wrote a friend that he’d been reading a book called The Three Princes of Serendip (Sri Lanka) whose protagonists continually made accidental discoveries. Their experience led Walpole to coin serendipity, for the process of discovering things by chance.

The British writer considered his coinage to be a mere confection, one he didn’t deem worth recording again. Little did he know that decades later – after the posthumous publication of his letters – serendipity would become one of our favorite words.

This illustrates the haphazard nature of word coinage. Far from being an orderly process in which neologisms get carefully crafted from Greek and Latin clauses, Biblical allusions and scholarly concepts, in one case after another the creation of usable new words has been unintended, unpredictable and spontaneous. Chance plays a bigger role than design in this process. Think of it as a Chaos Theory of Word Creation.

That’s how Oz came to be. This is a word we’ve loved ever since it was introduced in L Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (“He’s like from Oz.”) How did the author come up with it? From the biblical Land of Uz? The oohs and ahs he hoped to excite?


According to Baum, the answer is more prosaic. While writing his book and cogitating on where its wizard lived, Baum’s wandering eye fell upon a file cabinet in his office. Its three drawers were labeled A-G, H-N, and O-Z. O-Z! He had the wizard’s homeland. But suppose Baum had had a file cabinet with four drawers instead of three? One whose last drawer was labeled U-Z? Would his Wizard then have joined Job in the Land of Uz?

You see why the successful word creation can be so chaotic. Far from being a deliberate process involving careful oversight by a board of erudite scholars, in one case after another words we use every day have been coined haphazardly, then approved by the board of users. This is especially true of English, which has no formal process for assessing neologisms.

Unlike languages that are supervised by language academies, English is open-source. Anyone is free to propose new words or phrases. The only criterion for their success is that users adopt them. This has led to a word-creation process that’s something of a free-for-all – thankfully.

One reason English is so vibrant and user-friendly is that it welcomes new and needed terms no matter how they came to be. To the consternation of those who think new words should only be introduced after being carefully vetted (a piece of military slang added to the vernacular by Rudyard Kipling), sources of usable new words consist not just of books, plays and speeches but taunts, pranks and quips among friends.

In 1833, members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science gathered to come up with a name for members of their profession. Among those they considered and rejected were natural philosopher (too broad, too lofty), natur forschur (German for “nature-explorer”, too easy to misconstrue), and savans (rather assuming, too French). Finally, William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, proposed scientist.

Whewell’s suggested term was meant to be facetious, a word on a par with tobacconist, atheist and sciolist (an ignorant person who pretends to be well-informed). None of his colleagues took this fanciful suggestion seriously. After Whewell used scientist in an 1840 book, however, readers did. Over time the broader public followed suit.

Even then the eminent biologist Thomas Huxley, said he found scientist as appealing a term as electrocution. Everyday users disagreed. Despite its whimsical origin, they thought scientist was a perfectly good word, and still do.

Whimsy is one source of new words. Happenstance is another. Some usable terms result from misspelling, typographical errors and mispronunciation. Quark is one. This now-ubiquitous word was born in the early 1960s when physicist Murray Gell-Mann and his colleague Richard Feynman noodled with names for subatomic particles. Gell-Mann tossed out “squark” for these quirks of nature. He pronounced that word “kwork”, however. The two physicists rather liked Gell-Mann’s version and began to use it with colleagues.

But how to spell that term? A few weeks after his brainstorming session with Feynman, Gell-Mann thumbed through Finnegans Wake, a novel he loved for its extravagant wordplay. One passage leaped out at him: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” As with so many of James Joyce’s coined words, the meaning of quark wasn’t clear. Whatever the author’s intent (other than creating a word to rhyme with “Mark”) quark was just the spelling Gell-Mann was looking for.

Joyce’s works brim with words of his own creation. Some Joyceans call his passion for coining words “neologeewhiz”. The many coinages in Finnegans Wake include not just quark but the punny doublin, pelurious for hairiness, and a word meant to refer onomatopoeically to the sound of an unusually loud thunderclap: bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk. In Dubliners, Joyce called being ultra-drunk peloothered. Ulysses is chockablock with neologisms such as mrkgnao, diambulist, poppysmick, bullockbefriending, soliloquacity, and yogibogeybox. None caught on, however, perhaps because their intent was a bit too obvious. We enjoy having new words shoved down our throat about as much as we like being told to floss our teeth.

By contrast, words created with no intent of being adopted continually strike our fancy. Mockery is a capital source of such words, ones such as lumpectomy, meritocracy, impressionist, bureaucracy and pollster. All of these terms were coined to taunt, not to refresh the lexicon. This illustrates what linguists call “semantic bleaching”, the process by which barbed words are defanged.

Guy, for example, was originally an insulting term based on the name of Guy Fawkes after he tried to blow up parliament in 1605. In the colonies, however, guy came to mean little more than a chap, a bloke or a fellow. When GK Chesterton toured the US after the first World War, it took him a while to realise that being called a “regular guy” was meant to be complimentary, not insulting.

When Daily Mail reporter Charles Hands called radical suffragists suffragettes in 1906, thinking to blow them out of the water with withering sarcasm, the targets of his ire promptly renamed their official publication The Suffragette. Sylvia Pankhurst later wrote a book titled The Suffragette Movement. “There was a spirit in it,” explained her sister Christabel about why they embraced a word meant to be insulting.

Bloomer enjoyed a similar fate. That is the mocking name given to a blousy type of outfit worn in mid-19th century America by feminists such as Amelia Bloomer. Today, of course, bloomer refers simply to a commodious type of women’s underwear. The more fitted version, knickers, got its name from a spoof history of New York supposedly written by a historian named “Diedrich Knickerbocker”. Knickerbocker’s 1809 History of New York was actually a hoax produced by Washington Irving. An 1830 edition illustrated with sketches of Dutchmen wearing loose knee-breeches led to this type of garb being called knickerbockers. That in turn got shortened to knickers (as in “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”) In the evocative piece of Irish slang, plastic bags flapping in trees are called “witches’ knickers”.

Slang, pranks, taunts, quips – we simply can’t foresee where successful neologisms will originate. That’s what makes the process of word creation so chaotic. And so much fun. What fun would it be if new words could only be approved for general use by members of formal language academies, as is the case in so many countries on the continent? When it comes to word coining, wouldn’t we prefer anarchy to academies, and chaos instead of cohesion?

The Hidden History of Coined Words is published by Oxford University Press