Coined Words Quiz.

OUPBlog has a quiz to plug Ralph Keyes’ book The Hidden History of Coined Words; I got fewer than half the answers right, but didn’t feel bad about it because by and large it’s not the kind of thing you can expect to know unless you’ve read the book. But it’s fun, and you’ll learn stuff.

Also, remember this post about Alice Gregory’s New Yorker article “How Did a Self-Taught Linguist Come to Own an Indigenous Language?”? One of the things that annoyed me didn’t get mentioned in the post, and I was glad to see this letter about it in the new issue:

I appreciated how Alice Gregory, in her article about the history and the future of the Penobscot language, critiques the colonialist underpinnings of linguistics and language preservation (“Final Say,” April 19th). But, as someone with a background in linguistics, I felt that her argument was undercut by exoticized descriptions of Penobscot, which she portrays as “melodic, gentle, and worn-sounding” and “especially visual, efficient, and kinetic.” Virtually all languages have variations in tone or pitch, and tonal languages such as Mandarin might sound particularly “foreign” to an English speaker. Yet it seems problematic to describe a conversation in Penobscot as being “like a choir lesson” if the goal is to promote the language’s use in daily life. Gregory also observes that “single words can express full ideas” in Penobscot, but this quality, called “synthesis” by linguists, is not dissimilar to the agglutinative aspects (in which strings of suffixes and prefixes can be added to a single word) of languages such as Turkish, Hungarian, and Japanese—or even to German’s compound nouns. These languages are rarely described poetically. Though there is nothing wrong with finding a language beautiful, we should be wary of giving credence to the idea that mystical-sounding or aesthetically pleasing languages are worthier of preservation and revitalization.

Julia Clark
Los Angeles, Calif.

You tell ’em, Ms. Clark.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    A grand total of four correct; and I should probably have recused myself from the question about “missionary position” at that, due to my quondam insider status …

    The four were all ones I actually knew (like “scientist”); every single one of my random guesses was wrong. Must be a record …

  2. George Grady says

    I got ten right, which the quiz noted was 67%, and then helpfully added that that was between 60% and 79%, which, yes, it is.

  3. Dan Milton says

    Some lucky guesses but I scored 9/15.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    What, no one writing in English has ever described Japanese in a poetic and exoticizing (and thus I guess “problematic”) way? German, I’ll grant you …

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    8/15 FWIW, with a majority of the 8 being lucky-to-educated guesses rather than things I actually happened to know for sure.

  6. I think I knew five and with educated guesses was able to get five more.

  7. or even to German’s compound nouns

    Which aren’t all that dissimilar from the compound nouns of English. It’s just that when we write our long noun strings, we include the spaces.

  8. jdmartinsen says

    I’m led to wonder about the origin of the term “all of the above,” which (for me at least) misleadingly showed up as the first choice in the Charles Darwin question.

  9. The “all of the above” response to the Darwin question is probably incorrect. According to Merriam-Webster, alfalfa was already used in 1791 and rodeo, in 1819. See “A journey through Spain in the years 1786 and 1787” by Joseph Townsend, published 1791:

    Thus plentifully watered, this extensive plain produces wheat, barley, oats, rye, maize, leeks, onions, parsnips, alfalfa, hemp, vines, olives, figs, and mulberries.

    Rodeo appeared in 1819, although still italicized, in an English translation of Alexander Humboldt’s works. Also see “Mrs. Graham’s Residence in Chile” in The Monthly Review (1825):

    We came to a very extensive hacienda belonging to one of the Izquierdas, where every thing was in preparation for the annual rodeo.

    It seems that Ben Zimmer got carried away too far by Darwin’s all-round awesomeness.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Darwin has progressed from quote-attribution magnet to neologism magnet.

  11. January First-of-May says

    8/15 FWIW, with a majority of the 8 being lucky-to-educated guesses rather than things I actually happened to know for sure.

    Ditto for both. There were also a few things that I thought I knew for sure that were marked as wrong answers, and a few where I had a rough idea but took the wrong one of the two options that matched it. They should have made a point scale for “close but not quite”.

    With the OMG question I guessed (correctly) the earliest option (with a date in the 1920s), but would have thought it was far earlier than that. They should have added 19th or 18th century options, otherwise it’s too obvious.
    With the greenhouse effect I knew that Robert Wood (in the early 20th century) did an experiment with a real greenhouse that showed that the effect as usually described did not occur there, and decided that 1907 was too late. In retrospect I should have realized that it probably wasn’t a president who said it.

  12. 8/15 with a lot of guessing, plus I had read the comments here before and so was forewarned about the expected answer for Darwin.

  13. Another apparent mistake in the quiz: It marks you wrong for saying “Type A” did not originate as part of a book title, but although a quick ngram search confirms that “Type A personality” didn’t become a common phrase in English until after the publication of Friedman and Rosenman’s 1974 book, the authors had already used “Type A” as a label for cardiovascular risk groups in their 1959 JAMA paper.

  14. Trond Engen says

    8/15 with much guessing, It didn’t strike me until now that alternative B All of the above wasn’t supposed to be attributed to Darwin as a set phrase, which I found quite unlikely but got “right” after being warned.

  15. “It seems that Ben Zimmer got carried away too far by Darwin’s all-round awesomeness.”

    Do you mean Ralph Keyes?
    (If it is not indelicate to say so, a quiz by Ben might have been more reliable.)

  16. Stephen Carlson says

    10/15 once I realized that the most obscure choice was likely to be the correct one.

    The missionary position answer was unfair.

  17. @Stephen Goranson: If I understand correctly, Keyes’s source for the Darwin claim is Zimmer’s 2009 post at VisualThesaurus, “Happy Lincoln/Darwin Day!” Perhaps the corpora at Google Books and were much thinner 12 years ago and did not yet include the books that would have provided counterexamples.

  18. As with biology and astronomy, new discoveries are coming so thick and fast that books are obsolete before they’re published.

  19. Crawdad Tom says

    8/15, going usually for the most obscure choice, like Stephen Carlson, or the oldest. I didn’t think “all of the above” could be correct as the second choice, unless it was a trick–both a) and b) [all of the above, meaning a)] were correct. And I found it hard to believe that Darwin was the first to use “rodeo” in English.

  20. 8/15 for me. It’s a hard quiz.

  21. On the Darwin words (alfalfa and rodeo), the quiz-maker appears to be relying on the OED. These are not, as noted, the earliest appearances in English-language texts. Alfalfa, I found, appears in a long poem called A Vision of Death by the English poet Walter Harte, who died in 1774 (I found it in a collection published in 1794), and rodeo appears in many travelogues of trips to Chile and Peru from the 1810s onward- the rodeo there was an annual cattle roundup and sale, and the occasion for a festival.

    Alex K’s Townsend quote from 1791 pretty clearly is using alfalfa as an English word (although the version of Harte’s poem I found drops a footnote that alfalfa is a kind of lucerne grown in South America, implying that readers would not know what it was.)

    But it’s not obvious to me that either Darwin or the other writers thought of rodeo as an English word. The rodeo cites I found were referring to the event in Chile and Peru.

    So in writing rodeo, were these writers (including Darwin) trying to introduce a new word into English, or just using a South American Spanish word in an English text?

    By analogy, the last place outside the US I visited before the covid lockdown was Catalonia. When friends asked how was the food, I said, where we were, you could always find bacalla on the menu. Was I trying to introduce a new word into English? Or was I using the Catalan word for salt cod in order to be entertaining for my friends?

    Modern printing conventions requires foreign words to be italicized, but surely there was no such convention in 1790 or 1820. It seems to me that the early 19th c citations for rodeo are consciously using a foreign word for purposes of local color, not trying to introduce a new word into English. What I think we’d need to find is the word rodeo used unselfconsciously in an English text either for a cattle roundup, or to the horsemanship competitions that grew out of such roundups.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    To Bloix’s point, the California legislature enacted “An Act to regulate Rodeos” in 1851 (dealing with the “round-up” variety), so the specific Spanish/Mexican cultural style of cattle-raising practices coming under Anglophone rule (with simultaneous significant immigration of Anglophones living side-by-side with the prior Hispanophone population) due to political changes and the fortunes of war may have been a key factor in domesticating the word into some regional Englishes en route to getting into English more broadly. A qualitatively different sort of vector than the appearance of the word in some traveler’s tale of what he saw while visiting South America. That sort of domestication could have perhaps happened in Texas earlier than California, although I didn’t immediately spot a hit so indicating.

  23. “All of the above” in the Darwin question moves in differing a b c d positions upon different iterations of the test (maybe set up that way by blog editors, adding ambiguity).

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    But to the “Darwin or whoever” point, the arrival of a loanword in English seems different enough from “coinage” in its usual sense that it seems confusing to put into this sort of quiz – especially when it’s just taking the loanword with approximately the same referent as it had in the source language. Self-consciously picking a Greek or Latin word to have a specialized/technical meaning in some specialized variety of English is maybe more like “coinage,” but that’s not what happened with “rodeo” or “alfalfa,” I take it.

  25. Darwin was describing in his diary something he saw in Chile in 1834:

    The owners of lands in the plains possess each so much hill country where their cattle feed, & once a year there is a grand “Rodeo” when the cattle are all driven down, marked & counted & a certain number separated for fattening in the artificial fields in the valleys.

    And in 1835:

    The valley of Illapel is like all the others, dead level, broad, bordered by gravel cliffs or mountain sides, & very fertile. — Above the straight line of the upper irrigating ditch, all is as brown as a turnpike road, all beneath is Alfarfa (a kind of Clover) green as Verdigris — the contrast is singular.

    Yes, “Alfarfa.” The plant does look like clover when young although it’s a different, related species.

    It doesn’t seem Darwin is either coining new words here or seeking to introduce Spanish loans into English. It’s a naturalist’s travel notes probably not very much different than any other’s from that time.

  26. I remembered (from somewhere) the attribution of alfalfa to Darwin, so I didn’t think much about rodeo and chose “all of the above [sic.].” However, thinking about it more deeply, I agree with Bloix and J.W. Brewer that using a foreign word in English is not at all the same as coining a new term.

  27. Then there’s “to coin a phrase”–which is much older than OED’s 1940, “an expression commonly used ironically to introduce a cliché or a banal sentiment”—which then, “commonly,” is actually not a true coining–nor always a phrase–and, though often banal, may have some new use in context. Possibly (ironically?) without ironic intent. Maybe; maybe not. At Google Books 1806 (actually a 1807 letter; cf. stamp-ation in 1803): “You ask, whether any objection was made by the deputation of the committee appointed to wait on Mr. Estcourt and Mr. Vansittart, to the stampation (if I may be allowed to coin a phrase) of Soda Water.”

  28. I agree with Bloix and J.W. Brewer that using a foreign word in English is not at all the same as coining a new term.

    But it’s impossible to provide a principled distinction between using a foreign word in English and using a borrowed word; it’s a slippery slope all the way. We had a discussion of these matters back in 2012; I continue to agree with my then self:

    If you think it’s not part of the English lexicon, you need to provide a principled reason why (i.e., not “I’m not familiar with it and don’t have a use for it”). My test is very simple: if one English-speaker uses it in an English sentence and expects another English-speaker to understand it, it’s an English word, at least within that speech community. Now, a speech community can be very small; plenty of families have developed words they understand but no one else does. They’re still (in my view) English words, simply with limited circulation. I don’t know at what point you move from words of such tiny circulation they can be ignored by lexicographers (like family words) to words of limited but significant circulation that should at least be considered as dictionary entries, but I’m quite confident in my own mind that words for foods, utensils, orchestra instruments, and the like fall into the latter category. Again, if you disagree, I’d be interested in hearing why and what your criteria are. (And note that Conrad says “I’ve played a slenthem” just as he would say “I’ve played a sarrusophone”; what, pray tell, is the distinction? Most English-speakers are equally unfamiliar with either.)

  29. @languagehat: No, I agree absolutely. I just don’t think the use of a previously foreign word in English, with no change in meaning, is really a coinage (in the sense that Isaac Newton coined fluxions, as opposed to the sense in which he coined shillings) at all. Languages grow by adopting words from elsewhere and through the creation of new lexemes. Both processes are interesting, but they are very different. Only for the second process, for example, can we usually expect to find a single point of origin at which a word entered the English lexicon.

  30. Right, I wasn’t disagreeing with you, just being reminded of another nuance.

  31. I’ve heard very polarized opinions about the sound of Russian, ranging from ‘beautiful’ to ‘ugly’. Stereotypes of German and French are more uniform.
    (I personally love hearing Hawaiian as much as I do Interior Salish languages.)

  32. David Marjanović says

    Just as in China there are restaurants with the cuisine of different provinces, so there are in German-speaking places stereotypes of what the German of other places sounds like. The result is a fractal effect not unlike that for the word Yankee.

  33. Of course. I meant stereotypes held by complete outsiders, who might not even know of more than one variety.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve heard very polarized opinions about the sound of Russian

    IIRC, someone in Der Zauberberg describes Russian as a “boneless” language (a bad thing, apparently, contrary to what one might think.)

  35. ktschwarz says

    if one English-speaker uses it in an English sentence and expects another English-speaker to understand it, it’s an English word, at least within that speech community.

    Darwin’s uses of alfalfa and rodeo given by Alex K don’t pass that test, since he gives definitions. They’re English words now because *other* people started using them without defining them.

    the quiz-maker appears to be relying on the OED

    OED 2nd edition, evidently. Both have been updated (alfalfa in 2012, rodeo in 2010), antedating Darwin—in fact, Bloix’s find of alfalfa by Walter Harte is now their first citation, dated 1764, and Darwin’s quote has been dropped from the rodeo entry.

    This is on Keyes; I checked the Amazon preview and he says specifically that Darwin’s rodeo was “the first known use of that word in English”. Is it naive to expect better than this in a book published by OUP in 2021?

  36. January First-of-May says

    It doesn’t seem Darwin is either coining new words here or seeking to introduce Spanish loans into English.

    Indeed in the first quotation he’s probably quite conscious that “rodeo” is not supposed to be an English word in this context – otherwise he would not have put it in quotes.

    (I actually wonder if he was thinking of it as a proper name – as in “the Rodeo festival”.)

  37. Is it naive to expect better than this in a book published by OUP in 2021?

    No, I actually find that quite shocking, though I should have much lower expectations by now.

  38. Terry K. says

    I got 8/15, but I only really knew two, and kinda knew two others. The rest that I got right, a couple I choose the one that made the most sense to me, and a couple the structure of the question and answer led to the correct answer being a good guess. One of those, the Darwin one… in multiple choice trivia, if “all of the above” is a choice, choose it, unless you firmly know otherwise. It’s so exceedingly rare to throw in an “all of the above” when that’s not the correct answer that I judged that a more likely correct answer than “natural selection”.

  39. It’s so exceedingly rare to throw in an “all of the above” when that’s not the correct answer that I judged that a more likely correct answer than “natural selection”.

    Same here.

  40. Crawdad Tom says

    It’s neither here nor there, but as a young man I spent five months cutting, raking, and baling alfalfa (and barley) for hay.

  41. “I’ve heard very polarized opinions about the sound of Russian, ranging from ‘beautiful’ to ‘ugly’.”
    Jamie Lee Curtis has the definitive answer.

  42. Moving from the quiz to the more important instantiation, the book. I bought a copy; it’s reasonably priced. It collects many word origin stories; most readers interested in etymology will find many of them interesting. I haven’t finished reading. A couple of demurrers:

    1) Though the book warns that coiners are often unidentifiable, it presents Robert Merton as the introducer in 1948 (154-5) of “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

    But there are easily locatable earlier uses, including, e.g., in Feb. 1841 Frazier’s magazine, p. 130 col. 1 [italics omitted; google books, hathitrust, etc.]:
    “We say, let the idea of what we want penetrate our rulers and our people, and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of what we shall have.”

    2) On kibosh (134-5) Keyes quotes an old (May 19, 2010) blog post of Anatoly Liberman (who is not in the index).

    But he does not mention Origin of Kibosh: Routledge Studies in Etymology (2018), which has also been cited in OED online for some time now.

  43. Tsk, that’s sloppy. (Origin of Kibosh at LH.)

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