8 NOVEMBER 2008, Page 32

There’s plenty of goodies yet in the English word-factory

The most overused word this autumn has been ‘crunch’ in the sense of ‘crisis’, as in the phrase ‘credit crunch’. Not many know that it was first used thus by Winston Churchill, so adding to his many other claims to fame that of being a neologist. The OED credits him with inventing the usage but says it was in the Daily Telegraph on 23 February 1939, whereas I think it was a decade earlier in his book on the first world war.

I think I can fairly be called a neologist by virtue of using triumphalist in its current sense, in my History of Christianity (1976), having picked it up from the late mediaeval usage. The OED gives me credit for early usage in Enemies of Society (1977), but not with its discovery, which they attribute to Professor Henry Chadwick (1967), though I would argue he uses it in its original sense. The OED is not always correct in these matters. For instance it gives the first usage of ‘psychosomatic’ to Charles Reade in 1863. Richard Holmes, in his new book about the relations between men of science and men of letters, gives it to Coleridge a generation earlier, though it may be he first coined it in a private letter to Humphry Davy, rather than in a printed text.

Oddly enough, psychosomatic does not occur in the list of neologisms Geoffrey Madan gives in his Notebooks. Instead he credits Coleridge with pessimism, phenomenal and Elizabethan. I wonder if he is right about phenomenal. The OED backs him, giving the first usage to Coleridge’s Aids to Reflexion in 1825. Actually it first occurs in Elements of English Grammar (1801) written by the Lake District autodidactic scientist John Dalton, though he mistakenly gives it as ‘the feminine of phenomena’. Coleridge probably first used psychosomatic publicly in 1833, when he attended the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cambridge. He also was present at the session there at which it was agreed to replace the term ‘natural philosopher’ by ‘scientist’, on the analogy of artist, scientist, economist and atheist. The man who proposed the new term was William Whewell, though he did not use it in print till 1840, as the OED correctly records. The same year Blackwoods Magazine came out with a very dubious distinction: ‘Leonardo was mentally a seeker after truth — a scientist; Correggio was an asserter of truth — an artist.’ In fact I prefer the older term natural philosopher (those devoted to the knowledge of nature) as more accurate. The physicists, chemists and biolo gists have no right to regard themselves as the sole ‘scientists’: at the very least they should call themselves ‘physical scientists’. But then philosophers have no exclusive right to that term either, especially the contemporary academic ones, who write in an incomprehensible jargon (see their periodical Mind, passim).

According to Madan’s list, the most prolific neologist was Sir Thomas Browne. He is credited with inventing precarious, insecurity, medical, literary, electricity, hallucination, antediluvian and incontrovertible. That is a formidable achievement, if true. Another author who comes out well is Edmund Burke, to whom we owe colonial, diplomacy, financial, expenditure, municipality and the political use of representation. One of the interesting aspects of neologues is how their inventors betray their own characters. Thus one is not surprised to learn that Milton first used the words echoing, gloom, impassive, rumoured and liturgical. Or that Sir Walter Scott first coined stalwart, freelance, red-handed and gruesome. Carlyle produced ‘captain of industry’ and ‘message’ in its propaganda meaning. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Equally we find Byron minting bored and blasé. The prim Fanny Burney first used propriety in the sense of orthodox good behaviour. Macaulay is credited with constituency, which is doubtless correct, though I think he introduced many other new words into print.

Professor Thomas Huxley was certainly the creator of agnostic, a valuable word covering those who did not know whether God existed or not, and who had hitherto simply been lumped with those who flatly denied God’s existence, as atheists. The OED quotes as its authority for this the letter of R.H. Hutton, 13 March 1881, which asserts: ‘[Agnostic was] suggested by Prof. Huxley at a party held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society, at Mr James Knowles’s house on Clapham Common, one evening in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St Paul’s mention of the altar to “the unknown God”.’ This is a reference to the Acts of the Apostles, in which St Paul, in Athens, criticised the citizens for their superstition, saying he had passed an altar with this inscription: ‘To the Unknown God’, adding: ‘Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.’ St Paul’s words, therefore, make the opposite point to Huxley. Still, his neologism has provided an invaluable addition to our vocabulary, allowing us to distinguish between an intelligent sceptic like the late Freddie Ayer, and a bumptious fanatic like Richard Dawkins.

Madan’s list of neologisms credits Chaucer with only four: attention, positive, duration and fraction. In fact he first brought into use many more. They include jubilee, administration, secret, voluptuousness, novelty, digestion, persuasion, erect, moisture, galaxy, philosophical, policy and tranquillity. I believe he added over 1,000 words to our language — that is, these words cannot be found in earlier writers. He also invented, or at least first published, figures, similes and other verbal conjunctions, such as ‘friend and foe’, ‘horse and hounds’, ‘busy as bees’, ‘fish and flesh’, ‘soft as silk’, ‘rose-red’, ‘grey as glass’ and ‘still as a stone’. Thanks to Chaucer we still say ‘more or less’, ‘hard as iron’, ‘snow white’, ‘dance and sing’, ‘bright and clear’ and ‘old and young’. Other Chaucerisms are ‘I dare say’ and ‘no doubt’. He had a taste for sinister invention too, coining ‘Murder will out’ and (I give it in his original Middle English) ‘The smyler with the knif under the cloke’. Chaucer first warned us ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ and writes of setting ‘the world at sixes and sevens’. What a man!

Yet Shakespeare, as a neologist, leaves even Chaucer far behind. There are different methods of calculating how many words Shakespeare coined. One puts the total at 2,076, another at about 6,700. There were 150,000 English words in his day, of which he used, in his plays and poetry, about 20,000. So his coinages were up to 10 per cent of his vocabulary, an amazing percentage. Some were words he took out of the common stock of speech, and put them into print for the first time — abode, abstemious, affecting, anchovy, attorneyship, weather-bitten, well-ordered, well-read, wind-shaken, worm-hole and zany. He also turned nouns into verbs, and vice versa, or added suffixes. There are 314 instances of his using ‘un-’ in this way. Thus, in his very difficult, dense court-audience play, Love’s Labours Lost, now — amazingly — enjoying two current productions, Holofernes says that Dull is ‘undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather, unlettered, or rather, unconfirmed fashion’. Can’t imagine anyone doing that now, can you? Except perhaps Tom Stoppard. Some of Shakespeare’s new words caught on fast: uncomfortable, unaware, bandit, charmingly. Others flopped; there were 322 words only he ever used. You can’t win them all. But I must leave off now, and try and think of a neologism myself. How about a political Brownie point: an assertion so far-fetched as to constitute a porker?