English is a mess—just ask any non-native speaker who has tried to learn it. That messiness is part of what makes it such a thrilling language for writers, as it seems to invite the coining of new words and phrases. The heavyweight champion of neologisms is, of course, Bill Shakespeare—it’s estimated the Bard invented around 1,700 words, plus countless phrases that remain commonplace to this day—but he’s not the only guy capable of impacting the language. The words invented by these six books may surprise you.
James Joyce coined plenty of words, especially in the aggressively difficult Finnegans Wake, in which just about every line is a convoluted puzzle of reference, puns, and wordplay. Most of those words, however, stayed safely inside the pages of the book—with the exception of quark, appropriated by physicist Murray Gell-Mann to describe the elementary particle he discovered. He originally wanted to call it a kwork, but upon reading the phrase “three quarks for muster mark!” in Joyce’s novel, he thought the alternate spelling a better fit—possibly because he interpreted the line to refer to quarts of liquor being called for, which makes Dr. Gell-Man our kind of theoretical physicist.
Like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens was a prolific inventor of words. One of the most surprising to debut in one of his books is boredom, which seems like such a basic word it’s amazing to discover it first appeared in his Bleak House. While the word bore had existed for about 100 years already, Dickens seems to have been the first to turn it into a noun, instantly giving us all one more way of expressing our dissatisfaction with stifling Sunday afternoons.
by Dr. Seuss
The word nerd appeared in print for the first time in If I Ran the Zoo, a 1950 Dr. Seuss book, in which it’s used to describe a small, very angry-looking creature. Alternative spellings abound, including knurd, which is drunk spelled backward and supposedly indicates someone who doesn’t like to have fun. But Seuss’s spelling won the day, sparking the theory that tykes reading the book in the ’50s adapted the term into the classic insult we all know—and sometimes own—today.
Everyone knows Tolkien invented crazy words like “Nazgûl” and “hobbit,” not to mention entire fictional languages, but he also coined at least one term you’ve likely heard at least a few times this week: tween. In Tolkien’s works, the term is used to describe a hobbit older than 20 but not yet at the age of majority (33). While not exactly the definition most accepted today, when we use it to describe the terrifying population of preteen hipsters who secretly control all marketing and film scripts, it’s hard to believe the word doesn’t have its roots in Middle Earth.
Considering King’s decades of prolificacy, it would be more surprising if he hadn’t introduced at least one word into popular parlance. But it’s he we can thank for the delightful phrase pie-hole, which appears for the first time in history in his possessed car novel Christine. To be fair, “cake-hole,” with essentially the same meaning and usage, had existed long before, but “pie-hole” has eclipsed the earlier version through superior rhythm and a slightly rougher connotation that adds to the rebuke, so we have to give King credit where it’s due.
When not stabbing his wife, staring sullenly while being photographed, or picking fights, Norman Mailer was an incredible writer. In his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, he casually created the word factoid, which he defined as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion.” The definition has been tweaked over the years to mean a fact of little importance, but the factoid is, Mailer created the word, putting him just 1,699 points behind Shakespeare.