25 Words Coined by Twentieth-Century Authors

By Mark Nichol

This post lists a number of words that were introduced to the English lexicon by novelists and other writers during the twentieth century.

1. beep: Scientist and novelist Arthur C. Clarke came up with this onomatopoeic word for a small, high-pitched signal.

2. blurb: Humorist Gelet Burgess coined this term for a short piece of promotional copy.

3. catch-22: Novelist Joseph Heller named his best-known novel after his term for the concept of a lose-lose predicament.

4. cojones: Novelist Ernest Hemingway borrowed the Spanish word meaning “testicles” to refer to courage.

5. cyberspace: Novelist William Gibson combined the extant prefix cyber with space to describe an online environment.

6. debunk: Novelist William E. Woodward created this word to describe the concept of disproving fraudulent claims.

7. doublethink: Novelist George Orwell named the concept of having contradictory simultaneous ideas.

8. dreamscape: Poet Sylvia Plath came up with this word for a dreamlike scene.

9. factoid: Novelist Norman Mailer coined this term for an invented fact or a false claim that becomes accepted as fact; by extension, it has also come to refer to a trivial fact.

10. groupthink: Writer William H. Whyte coined this word, which refers to self-deceiving conformity, on the model of doublethink.

11. litterbug: Writer Alice Rush McKeon came up with this term for people who carelessly drop litter.

12. meme: Scientist Richard Dawkins coined this term for behaviors, ideas, or styles passed between people; it is now widely associated with images from popular culture that express a concept.

13. microcomputer: Scientist and novelist Isaac Asimov attached a prefix meaning “very small” to computer to create a word for a portable computing device.

14. nerd: Writer Dr. Seuss gave no definition for this nonsense word he coined and did not associate it with any of his illustrations, but it came to refer to a socially inept person, especially one with advanced academic or intellectual skills but poor social skills.

15. nymphet: Novelist Vladimir Nabokov came up with this word for a sexually precocious pubescent girl; by extension, it came to apply to an attractive young woman.

16. piehole: Novelist Stephen King introduced this slang for the mouth, with the connotation that someone associated with the word (as when told, “Shut your piehole”) should use one’s mouth only for eating because the thoughts the person voices with it are not worthwhile for anyone to hear.

17. quark: Scientist Murray Gell-Mann, inspired by writer James Joyce’s use of the word in its existing sense of “a fermented dairy product resembling cottage cheese,” adopted the spelling of that word for a term he had coined that referred to a type of subatomic particle.

18. robot: The brother of Czech writer Karel Čapek suggested that he use robota, Czech for “forced labor,” as a name for machines that resemble and perform tasks normally carried out by humans; it was translated into English as robot, and Isaac Asimov came up with the noun robotics to refer to the science behind such machines, as well as the adjective robotic.

19. scaredy-cat: Satirist Dorothy Parker came up with this slang word for a timid person.

20. superman: Playwright George Bernard Shaw translated philosopher Friedrich Nietzche’s term Übermensch for the title of his play Man and Superman; the word also applies generically to a person with extraordinary abilities as well as to the superhero of that name.

21. tightwad: Humorist George Ade used this term in a colloquial retelling of fairy tales.

22. tween: Philologist and novelist J. R. R. Tolkien coined this word to describe hobbit adolescence, alluding to the span of life known as the twenties (hobbits came of age in their early thirties), but it later arose independently as a truncation of between to refer to the transitional years between childhood and adolescence.

23. unputdownable: Mystery writer Raymond Chandler came up with this word for a compelling read.

24. whodunit: Book critic Donald Gordon described a mystery novel with this word.

25. workaholic: Psychologist Wayne E. Oates coined this term on the model of alcoholic; although it was not the first -aholic coinage, its popularity inspired many similar constructions.

Subsequent posts will list earlier linguistic inventions.

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10 Responses to “25 Words Coined by Twentieth-Century Authors”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Piehole
    “The novelist Stephen King introduced this slang for the mouth…”
    Stephen King has been with us for a long time, and hence my question is how long ago did he do this?
    I have seen “piehole” in works of science fiction here and there for a long time. It might have been in STARSHIP TROOPERS, pub. 1959, by Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein was a Navy man – Annapolis 1927 – and “piehole” definitely sound like naval and military slang. Heinlein served on the old USS “Saratoga” back when the Navy only had three aircraft carriers, and he served as an engineering officer, mostly in air-ground and air-to-air radio communications.
    Heinlein was unable to serve during WW II because he had caught tuberculosis, and he had to be discharged medically. It didn’t kill him, but he could have spread it to lots of other sailors.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some other interesting words ending in “ics” :
    ethics, phonics, forensics, Ebonics, kinesics, kinetics, statics (a term from physics and engineering that is not “statistics”), supersonics, and a large set of words from medicine & dentistry including {pediatrics, orthopedics, orthodontics, periodontics, orthotics }.
    With just “ic” on the end, we get a common term from computer science and telecommunications: “alphanumeric”, a combination of “alphabetic” and “numeric”. The word “alphanumerical” also exists.
    There are also infrasonic, hypersonic, and ultrasonic, suggesting that maybe an “s” could be places at the end of these.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Here is an example of “brainwashing” in action. Just put this word between “>” and “<" and you get this <>.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Thank you very much Venqax. So we have the Red Chinese to thank for “brainwash”, and the Soviets to thank for SMERSH, KGB, GRU, and “tokomak” (in plasma physics).
    The real SMERSH of Josef Stalin led to the fictional SPECTRE of James Bond – 007.

  • venqax

    According to etymological sources online, “brainwash” is a literal translation of the Chinese xi nao— wash and brain. It entered English during the Korean War, for well-known reasons.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Didn’t George Orwell also invent the word “Newthink”, and perhaps a few more?
    Who invented the word “brainwash” ?

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Isaac Asimov came up with the noun robotics to refer to the science behind such machines, as well as the adjective robotic.”
    From reading Asimov’s biographies, I know that he THOUGHT that the word “robotics” already existed. He didn’t know that he was making something new.
    To Asimov, “robotics” fell right in the same category as aeronautics, dynamics, economics, graphics, hydraulics, kinetics, mechanics, optics, physics, and statistics.
    Then there came “plate tectonics”, too, from the field of geology, and I will let you look up who wrote that one down for the first time. I just know that the idea of “continental drift” was very controversial for decades, but then it became respectable and the phrase “plate tectonics” replaced that older term.
    Either Asimov or another writer of S.F. invented the words nucleonic and nucleonics for hypothetical future means of dealing with nuclear power without all the problems of deadly radiation, heavy shielding against neutrons & gamma rays, radioactive waste, and fallout.
    The mathematician and engineer Norbert Wiener of MIT created the word “cybernetics” for his writings. He might have created “cyborg”, too. Also, the inspired word “bionics” was created by the author who wrote the novel that inspired “The $6 Million Man” and “The Bionic Woman” on television.
    There was a doctor with the Royal Canadian Air Force, who invented the concept of and the word “aerobics”, and he published his best-selling nonfiction book AEROBICS.
    The people in the field of cryogenics wanted to frown strongly on the concept of freezing people for hypothetical future revival, so they coined the word “cryonics” for that, and they use it in a derogatory sense.
    Then there are books that are practically flimflams like “Dianetics”,
    It is to bad that the term “rocketics” would be such a tongue-twister, so we have to use phrases like “rocket science” and “aerospace engineering” and “astronautical engineering” for that.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    I guess I need clarification of Danny and Mark’s remarks. I recognize the difference between coining and distributing or popularizing a word. In the above cases, e.g., Hemingway certainly did not coin the Spanish word cojones or even it’s meaning. He introduced it into English as an informal or slang term. But as far as I’m aware, Heller did coin the term Catch-22. He did not create the concept, of course, but the term for it, and the terms/words are the subject of “25 Words Coined By…” In fact it took quite a lot of back-and-forth between him and his publisher– Catch 17, 14, 11, etc.,– before settling on 22. So I don’t understand the point there. ??

  • Mark Nichol

    Danny:
    Yes, I should have adhered to my own admonition posted elsewhere on this site (see the last part of this post) and alluded to that distinction. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Danny

    It appears you are using the term “coined by” rather loosely. For example, Heller did not invent “catch-22.” He popularized it. I’m sure many of your examples fit in a similar mold.

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