FOR SHAME, MR. JEFFERSON!

Ralph Keyes has a fine survey of English word coinage in The American Scholar; he starts off with Thomas Jefferson (“‘Necessity,’ he concluded, ‘obliges us to neologize.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Jefferson is the first person known to have used the term neologize, in an 1813 letter”) and the reaction to his innovations in the motherland:

Once they caught wind of all the new words being coined across the Atlantic, self-appointed guardians of the King’s English were rather cross. When Jefferson used the new word belittle in his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia, a British critic exclaimed, “It may be an elegant [word] in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” Undaunted, the third president proceeded to coin Anglophobia.

He goes on to Elbridge Gerry (he of the very first gerrymander), Gelett Burgess (coiner of blurb and goop), would-be innovator Thomas Friedman (“Friedman has succeeded only with flat world, and even that success proved fleeting”), and Maury Maverick (who added gobbledygook to the language), among others. One paragraph traces global warming back to 1952, another describes Fred Hoyle’s dismay that his term big bang caught on. I got a kick out of the section on meritocracy:

In 1958 British sociologist Michael Young published a dystopian novel called The Rise of the Meritocracy. His intent was to satirize the assessment of “merit” by credentials rather than by performance. In his book’s initial edition the author wrote of meritocracy, “The origin of this unpleasant term … is still obscure. It seems to have been first generally used in the sixties of the last century in small-circulation journals attached to the Labour Party, and gained wide currency much later on.” But in his introduction to a 1994 reprint, Young admitted that he’d coined meritocracy himself. Why had he been so cagey originally? Because when he was coming up with his book’s title, a classicist had warned him that mixing Greek and Latin roots would break the rules of good usage and subject him to ridicule. As it turned out, even though the book itself was controversial, its title wasn’t (“rather the opposite I would say”). Therefore Young now felt free to step forward and claim authorship of meritocracy. “The twentieth century had room for the word,” he realized, even one its coiner meant to be pejorative.

There’s plenty more where that came from. Thanks, Paul!

Comments

  1. The OED record is pretty interesting, especially in the dates of the first evidence quotations of various words for neologism/neologize (some of the etymologies imply missing evidence when compared with the dates of the first quots).
    Anyhow, here’s a little list gathered from OED, plus a couple of comments, inspired by this post. Opportunities for irony abound when you don’t have a word to complain about new words.
    http://poetry-contingency.uwaterloo.ca/new-words-for-new-words/

  2. From D-AW’s link:
    “neological 1 – “[...] containing new words or phrases.”
    1754 Ld. Chesterfield in World 5 Dec. 610 A genteel neological dictionary, containing those polite..words and phrases, commonly used..by the beau monde.”
    The two generations between Chesterfield’s use and Jefferson’s letter gave ample time for the introduction of variants on “neological” that Jefferson could then purloin. He was a politician, wasn’t he?

  3. Great article, but describing Japanese as a language in which it is not true that “anyone is free to suggest new words or phrases” is hilariously off-base. The description isn’t even as technically, by-fiat true as you might argue it to be in the case of French — the Japanese Ministry of Education claims authority solely over orthography, and are cheerfully ignored by everyone outside their sphere of influence in any case.

  4. People fluent in Latin and Greek can invent any word they like (and it sounds good, too)!

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