We have much more to thank writers for than simply crafting literary masterminds—sometimes, they reinvent the way we speak, transforming the very way we view the world in the process. These men and women were the wordsmiths we needed and the wordsmiths we deserved.
- Yahoo: from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
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In Swift’s 1726 humorous fantasy epic, the term “yahoo” refers to a race encountered by world traveler Lemuel Gulliver. Now it is used to refer to any rude or noisy person, but it is perhaps known as the name of struggling internet stalwart Yahoo.
- Butterfingers: from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
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A rather cruel name for someone who just can’t seem to catch a ball, “butterfingers” was used by Dickens in his 1836 novel. Though he did not invent the word—it has been found in sources dating back to 1615—Dickens nonetheless laid the path for your favorite salty-sweet chocolate bar—and your less beloved schoolyard taunt.
- Scaredy-cat: from The Waltz by Dorothy Parker
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The notoriously biting Parker invented “scaredy-cat” for a 1933 short story: “Oh, yes, do let’s dance together. It’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri.” What does that mean exactly? Well, you’re on your own for that one.
- Phony: from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
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“Phony”, meaning fake or disingenuous, first came into existence around the turn of the twentieth century, but it didn’t really take off until Salinger published Catcher in the Rye in 1953. For troubled teen Holden Caulfield, almost everything and everyone he comes into contact with is phony—and unfortunately, people like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr. agreed.
- Tween: from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
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According to Tolkien’s original definition, a tween is a hobbit between the ages of 20 and 33—quite young for the long-lived (and forever young) hobbits. Human tweens now are roughly 10 to 13 years of age, but who knows? I’m sure some of us would love to be 30-year-old youngsters.
- Co-ed: from Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott
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Co-ed, as you may know, is short for “co-education,” and it is first spoken by a young male student objecting to eating with “co-ed,” AKA girls. Get used to it buddy!
- Dreamscape: from “The Ghost’s Leavetaking” by Sylvia Plath
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Plath came up with “dreamscape” to describe the limbo land where our dreams occur in this 1958 poem. Plath also invented words like “sleep-talk” and “windripped” before her untimely death at age 30.
- Assassination: from Macbeth by William Shakespeare
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Though the term “assassin” predates the Scottish Play, Shakespeare was the first to turn the act of murdering a prominent person into a noun. This is, of course, not the only word Shakespeare invented—the dude practically wrote half of all modern English vocabulary. Now that’s an accomplishment.
- Spook/Spooked: To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
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Though the word “spook” had been in use before To Have and Have Not’s 1937 publication, everyone’s favorite macho-man writer was the first to have it mean “frighten and unnerve” instead of just specifically referring to ghostly behavior. Thanks Papa!
Featured image courtesy of How Writers Read.