Milton the wordmaker

I did not know this about John Milton, one of my favorite authors.  The 17th century blind Puritan poetic genius contributed more new words to the English language than anyone else:

According to Gavin Alexander, lecturer in English at Cambridge university and fellow of Milton’s alma mater, Christ’s College, who has trawled the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for evidence, Milton is responsible for introducing some 630 words to the English language, making him the country’s greatest neologist, ahead of Ben Jonson with 558, John Donne with 342 and Shakespeare with 229. Without the great poet there would be no liturgical, debauchery, besottedly, unhealthily, padlock, dismissive, terrific, embellishing, fragrance, didactic or love-lorn. And certainly no complacency.

“The OED does tend to privilege famous writers with first usage,” Alexander admits, “and early-modern English – a composite of Germanic and Romance languages – was ripe for innovation. If you couldn’t think of a word, you could just make one up, ideally based on a term from French or Latin that others educated in those languages would understand. Yet, by any standards, Milton was an extraordinary linguist and his freedom with language can be related to his advocacy of personal, political and religious freedoms.”

Milton’s coinages can be loosely divided into five categories. A new meaning for an existing word – he was the first to use space to mean “outer space”; a new form of an existing word, by making a noun from a verb or a verb from an adjective, such as stunning and literalism; negative forms, such as unprincipled, unaccountable and irresponsible – he was especially fond of these, with 135 entries beginning with un-; new compounds, such as arch-fiend and self-delusion; and completely new words, such as pandemonium and sensuous.

Not that Milton got things all his own way. Some of his words, such as intervolve (to wind within each other) and opiniastrous (opinionated), never quite made it into regular usage – which feels like our loss rather than his.

via John Crace on Milton’s contribution to the english language | UK news | The Guardian.

The man could speak Latin and Greek like his native tongue, and he was fluent in virtually all of the European languages. So when he wanted to express something, the exact word came to him, even though it didn’t exist before.

HT: Joe Carter

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Acroamaticus

    There’s still hope for ‘refudiate’, then?

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Acroamaticus

    There’s still hope for ‘refudiate’, then?

  • Tom Hering

    “There’s still hope for ‘refudiate’, then?”

    Like George W. Bush, I wouldn’t misunderestimate the possibility that “refudiate” will enter the dictionaries.

  • Tom Hering

    “There’s still hope for ‘refudiate’, then?”

    Like George W. Bush, I wouldn’t misunderestimate the possibility that “refudiate” will enter the dictionaries.

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Acroamaticus

    @2 :0)

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Acroamaticus

    @2 :0)

  • Carl Vehse

    Repudiate was recognized as Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year.

    That’s bound to get PDS-infectees all “wee-wee’d” up.

  • Carl Vehse

    Repudiate was recognized as Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year.

    That’s bound to get PDS-infectees all “wee-wee’d” up.

  • Carl Vehse

    That’s a mispelled refudiate.

  • Carl Vehse

    That’s a mispelled refudiate.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Thanks to Milton, the vocabulary of the English language has been embiggened.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Thanks to Milton, the vocabulary of the English language has been embiggened.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    So the real question here then is, has the English language stagnated?
    why was it alright for Milton to verb a noun, or noun a verb, but it is considered incorrect grammar when the common populace does it?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    So the real question here then is, has the English language stagnated?
    why was it alright for Milton to verb a noun, or noun a verb, but it is considered incorrect grammar when the common populace does it?

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Because he was Milton, and we’re not.
    That’s the kind of thing my English teachers used to say, anyway.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Because he was Milton, and we’re not.
    That’s the kind of thing my English teachers used to say, anyway.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    A good reason to learn how to write poetry and understand the ancient languages. Evidently it makes one a word-smith. I’ve got part of half of that down. Too bad I’m so content with that to be an armchair – logosartisan (that’s really terrible!).

  • Bryan Lindemood

    A good reason to learn how to write poetry and understand the ancient languages. Evidently it makes one a word-smith. I’ve got part of half of that down. Too bad I’m so content with that to be an armchair – logosartisan (that’s really terrible!).

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Well Mike, that just ain’t a good enough answer for me, even if it did come from them there English teachers. No one has the potential to kill the English language and suck the joy of learning like and English teacher. Our host being the exception of course. :)

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Well Mike, that just ain’t a good enough answer for me, even if it did come from them there English teachers. No one has the potential to kill the English language and suck the joy of learning like and English teacher. Our host being the exception of course. :)

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Bror – I often wonder about that. Then again, one wouldn’t want all kinds of linguistic innovations to be permanent, would one? But where to draw the line seems too be a difficult question.

    Bryan, following from a discussion we had some weeks ago, logopoeia might sound a bit better than logosartisan, eh?

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Bror – I often wonder about that. Then again, one wouldn’t want all kinds of linguistic innovations to be permanent, would one? But where to draw the line seems too be a difficult question.

    Bryan, following from a discussion we had some weeks ago, logopoeia might sound a bit better than logosartisan, eh?

  • EGK

    Question regarding “refudiate”: is it a misspelling / misheard / misunderstanding of repudiate, or is it an intentional coining of what Lewis Carroll called a “portmanteau” word, a combining of refute and repudiate. Carroll’s great ones, or course, include “chortle” (snort and chuckle), “gallumph” (gallop in triumph), “frumious” (furious and fuming), etc. Trying to figure this all out would be a humongous (or ginormous?) task.

  • EGK

    Question regarding “refudiate”: is it a misspelling / misheard / misunderstanding of repudiate, or is it an intentional coining of what Lewis Carroll called a “portmanteau” word, a combining of refute and repudiate. Carroll’s great ones, or course, include “chortle” (snort and chuckle), “gallumph” (gallop in triumph), “frumious” (furious and fuming), etc. Trying to figure this all out would be a humongous (or ginormous?) task.

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, innovation was a needful thing when the English language was young. Not so much now. Perhaps especially not now, when so many are sloppie bout languej.

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, innovation was a needful thing when the English language was young. Not so much now. Perhaps especially not now, when so many are sloppie bout languej.

  • Tom Hering

    “Refudiate” would mean both “argue against” (refute) and “separate from” (repudiate). Which is a clever neologism, and quite expressive of a culture warrior’s mindset.

  • Tom Hering

    “Refudiate” would mean both “argue against” (refute) and “separate from” (repudiate). Which is a clever neologism, and quite expressive of a culture warrior’s mindset.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Louis @ 11,
    No one would not want them all to be permanent. Yet, what is permanent in the English language? In any case Louis, I see much of what is considered bad grammar, to actually be perfectly legitimate grammar based on the more ancient roots of the language, and perhaps a rebellion of sorts against the Latin straight jackets that have been imposed upon the language by inept English teachers.
    Tom,
    The English had been around for quite sometime before Milton came along, it is hard to argue that their language was young. It was experiencing a period of innovation to be sure, and perhaps even massive change, but it was not young.
    Other languages experience the same sort of changes and innovation, but one would not consider any of them to be young.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Louis @ 11,
    No one would not want them all to be permanent. Yet, what is permanent in the English language? In any case Louis, I see much of what is considered bad grammar, to actually be perfectly legitimate grammar based on the more ancient roots of the language, and perhaps a rebellion of sorts against the Latin straight jackets that have been imposed upon the language by inept English teachers.
    Tom,
    The English had been around for quite sometime before Milton came along, it is hard to argue that their language was young. It was experiencing a period of innovation to be sure, and perhaps even massive change, but it was not young.
    Other languages experience the same sort of changes and innovation, but one would not consider any of them to be young.

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, I wish you would discuss things in a more agreementative way.

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, I wish you would discuss things in a more agreementative way.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Carl (@4), you may note that, though they did name it as their “Word of the Year” on their blog, they also added, “Does that mean that ‘refudiate’ has been added to the New Oxford American Dictionary? No it does not.” Sorry.

    One also may note that Milton had the good sense to be born (and to coin his words) before English had a truly authoritative dictionary. Doubtless this made inventing words a bit easier back then than now — how would you challenge someone? Of course, Scrabble games were truly unbearable back then, for the same reason (e.g. “And what, pray telle, is a ‘VICEAU’?”).

    Bror (@7), were you serious when you asked, “has the English language stagnated?” Of course not. Don’t you have a son? Don’t you use a computer? Youth and technology provide us with a ceaseless stream of new words, most of which we gladly abandon within a few years.

    Still, English teachers are joyless in the same way that any sort of teacher is, in that they insist on teaching kids the rules before going on to break them. My percussion teacher also taught me how to play straight quarter notes before he ever let me improvise. Let’s not confuse people who are sloppy with language with those who intentionally tweak it.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Carl (@4), you may note that, though they did name it as their “Word of the Year” on their blog, they also added, “Does that mean that ‘refudiate’ has been added to the New Oxford American Dictionary? No it does not.” Sorry.

    One also may note that Milton had the good sense to be born (and to coin his words) before English had a truly authoritative dictionary. Doubtless this made inventing words a bit easier back then than now — how would you challenge someone? Of course, Scrabble games were truly unbearable back then, for the same reason (e.g. “And what, pray telle, is a ‘VICEAU’?”).

    Bror (@7), were you serious when you asked, “has the English language stagnated?” Of course not. Don’t you have a son? Don’t you use a computer? Youth and technology provide us with a ceaseless stream of new words, most of which we gladly abandon within a few years.

    Still, English teachers are joyless in the same way that any sort of teacher is, in that they insist on teaching kids the rules before going on to break them. My percussion teacher also taught me how to play straight quarter notes before he ever let me improvise. Let’s not confuse people who are sloppy with language with those who intentionally tweak it.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    tODD, a percussionist? I don’t think I knew that. Say it ain’t so! This explains a lot.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    tODD, a percussionist? I don’t think I knew that. Say it ain’t so! This explains a lot.

  • Mantis

    Don’t forget another of Milton’s words- “iconoclast.”

  • Mantis

    Don’t forget another of Milton’s words- “iconoclast.”

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Tom,
    I discuss things in an “agreementative” way all the time, with those who say things that I agree with. For instance, I will now agree with both Louis and tODD.
    tODD,
    Right you are. It hasn’t stagnated, people are inventing new words, borrowing new words etc. Yet as you point out the authoritative dictionary has made scrabble games a little more bearable.
    The only thing I’d say about your take on English Teachers is that it should be qualified somewhat. Sure there are good English teachers out there that do a good job of teaching the rules, and yet can appreciate them being broken. Most I have encountered though would not be able to tell you why the rules are what they are, and how they developed. A good many of them are just joyless, but I suppose in the same way most schoolmarms are.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Tom,
    I discuss things in an “agreementative” way all the time, with those who say things that I agree with. For instance, I will now agree with both Louis and tODD.
    tODD,
    Right you are. It hasn’t stagnated, people are inventing new words, borrowing new words etc. Yet as you point out the authoritative dictionary has made scrabble games a little more bearable.
    The only thing I’d say about your take on English Teachers is that it should be qualified somewhat. Sure there are good English teachers out there that do a good job of teaching the rules, and yet can appreciate them being broken. Most I have encountered though would not be able to tell you why the rules are what they are, and how they developed. A good many of them are just joyless, but I suppose in the same way most schoolmarms are.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Louis, I think “logopoeia” sounds disgusting. ;-P

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Louis, I think “logopoeia” sounds disgusting. ;-P

  • Porcell

    Mike Westfall: Because he was Milton, and we’re not.

    Yes, Milton and Shakespeare can be respected with their neologisms, while most of the contemporary ones are suspect fashions that will likely not last. The English language is flexible, though not supine in the end, protestations of the egalitarians notwithstanding.

  • Porcell

    Mike Westfall: Because he was Milton, and we’re not.

    Yes, Milton and Shakespeare can be respected with their neologisms, while most of the contemporary ones are suspect fashions that will likely not last. The English language is flexible, though not supine in the end, protestations of the egalitarians notwithstanding.

  • cc

    I’d have guessed it about Milton. What I remember most about his poetry was the grandness and then the fancy words that drove me nuts because I had to read with my dictionary in the other hand.

  • cc

    I’d have guessed it about Milton. What I remember most about his poetry was the grandness and then the fancy words that drove me nuts because I had to read with my dictionary in the other hand.

  • S Bauer

    In this post-modern world, I think the word “automagically” has a long and noble future.

  • S Bauer

    In this post-modern world, I think the word “automagically” has a long and noble future.


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