AUTHORISMS: WORDS WROUGHT BY WRITERS
By Paul Dickson
Bloomsbury, $20, 228 pages
Paul Dickson, the noted author, lexicographer and commentator who last year gave us “Words from the White House,” a sampling of presidential neologisms or phrases demonstrating that even some of the most unlikely of our chief executives have the wit and wisdom to use our language to good effect, is back this year to salute the writers who coin, capture or popularize the words that enrich and expand the language.
To mark the “sesquiquadricentennial, or 450th anniversary” of the Bard’s birth, Mr. Dickson dedicates his book to “William Shakespeare, now and forever the greatest neologist of the English language.” (Also, just in case you’re wondering: “The term sesguiquadricentennial,” writes Mr. Dickson in a note, “was coined by John M. Morse and the staff of Merriam-Webster for the purposes of this work.”)
Shakespeare’s “written vocabulary consisted of 17,245 words, including hundreds of authorisms.” How many hundreds is a matter of scholarly conjecture, with estimates running from 1,700 to 6,000 new words. Geoffrey Chaucer gave us “bed,” “bagpipe” and “Martian,” and according to one scholar, John Milton is England’s “greatest neologist,” with coinages like “debauchery,” “besottedly,” “lovelorn,” “pandemonium,” “Satanic” and “all hell broke loose.”
Jane Austen wrote of “base ball” (two words) in “Northanger Abbey,” and George Eliot used the word “chintzy.” Thackeray gave us “snob,” Dickens “artful dodger,” Wordsworth “pedestrian,” T.H. Huxley “atheist,” James Fenimore Cooper “muscleman” and Edgar Allan Poe “hysteria.”
Ernest Hemingway first used (in English) “cojones,” F. Scott Fitzgerald “T-shirt,” John Steinbeck “blabbermouth,” Walter Winchell “frenemy,” P.G. Wodehouse “lamebrained,” Norman Mailer “factoid,” Dr. Seuss “nerd” and Dorothy Parker “scaredy-cat.”
John Clellon Holmes, quoting Jack Kerouac, first wrote of a “beat generation,” and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen gave us “beatnik.”
In Mr. Dickson’s compendium, William F. Buckley Jr., a prolific wordsmith, is credited with just one curious addition to the language, “Hippism” — nothing to do with flower children or musicians, but rather a term meaning “a philistine’s resentment of a curiosity about the meaning of words,” coined by Mr. Buckley after reading an attack by a librarian named Joseph Hipp on a new dictionary.
Hippism or hoppism — strange that Bill Buckley would have only one obscure coinage attributed to him. Linda Bridges, his former personal assistant and keeper of National Review’s institutional memory, agrees, although as she put it in a note, “none come leaping to mind. There were other instances, though, where Bill used a person’s name for a nonce coinage that wasn’t expected to get wider traction, but was a nice putdown at the time.”
“Bill was better known, after all, as he himself put it, for diving into the dictionary and emerging with a fish in his mouth.”
Wordfisher? Dictionary diver?
No matter. Mr. Dickson, who has coined several words of his own (among them “demonym,” the name for a person from a specific locality, e.g., Chicagoan), points out that it’s “one thing to create a new word or catchphrase, and quite another for one of your lexical offspring to find acceptance.”
However, it’s an extraordinarily rich and nuanced language, and new coinages continue to be minted. William Gavin, an old friend, colleague and former Nixon speechwriter, has written a splendid book titled “Speechwright,” a word he believes more accurately describes the craft.
Decades ago, a few of us on the National Review editorial staff came up with a term descriptive of certain kinds of drivel, both written and oral. We called it “twilp,” a word that seemed precisely right at the time, accurate but less harsh than “dreck,” according to Mr. Dickson is a Yiddish term used by James Joyce in “Ulysses.” Dreck lives, but twilp is as dead as yesterday’s nonce word.
However, that was minor-league activity, and Mr. Dickson plays in the majors. (He’s also author of “The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary”). The entries in “Authorisms,” arranged alphabetically from A to Z, are accompanied by miniessays. There is an introduction surveying the history of neologizing, an epilogue discussing the difficulties of getting nonce words accepted and an appendix, keeping track of the latest estimates of just how many words and phrases Shakespeare actually coined.
As with Mr. Dickson’s earlier books, “Authorisms” is both highly readable and informed by broad (but never pedantic) scholarship, written in strong, clear prose, with an obvious love of the English language.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).