How words are invented

We had an interesting discussion about the post a few days ago about how the blind Puritan poet John Milton contributed more new words to the English language than anyone else.  Some people asked questions along the line of “how come he can make up new words and I can’t?”  Or “how come he can use words as different parts of speech and my mean old English teacher marked me down every time I tried it?”  It was also observed that new words are entering the English language all the time.  I realized that the process of coming up with new words is not generally understood.  So I will put on my English professor hat and explain. . . .

First of all, there needs to be a need for a new word, a “semantic space” in the language that needs to be filled.  Let’s use some of Milton’s words as examples.  His day, like ours, had a lot of “worship wars” in the Church of England.  The word “liturgy” existed.  But, earlier, that was pretty much the only kind of worship there was.  There was a need for an adjectival form of that word to distinguish that type of worship from the alternatives.  So Milton turned the existing noun into an adjective by adding a Latin adjectival ending.  Hence a new word that we use today in our own worship wars:  “liturgical.”

An even better, because more poetic, example:  The new Copernican cosmology meant that the earth and the planets spin around in a vast void.  In Paradise Lost, Milton needed to write about Satan flying to earth.  Dante in the Middle Ages had imagined Hell as existing in the center of the earth.  Milton imagines it more like another planet.  The word “space” existed to refer to expanse, area, extent.  Milton took that word and made it refer to the realm beyond earth’s atmosphere.  Satan flew through “space.”  What great poetry!  Imagine hearing that poetic image for the first time.  But now we have a new word, one that names something that was nameless before.

This process still continues.  New inventions require new words.  Like Milton, we to this day tend to go back to the classical languages for help in coining them.   “Computer” is from the Latin.  “Telephone” and “Television” are from the Greek.  (This is why it is so helpful to learn Latin.  You can decode just about any English “hard word.”) “Internet” combines a venerable English word “net,” associated with the already metaphorical “network,” to describe poetically a complex set of interconnections.   Then was added the Latin preposition “inter.”  Voila.  We have a new word.  “Facebook” combines two existing words into a new one.  “Google” takes a whimsical name for a really big number for a company, and then it was morphed into a verb.

It isn’t always clear who the mute inglorious Miltons were (name that allusion) who first came up with the new words that come into existence today.  But the process goes back to Adam:  God brought creatures to Adam, whereupon he named them.

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

Unflagging a word and setting us free

Thanks to tODD for figuring out how to get into the spam filter to keep it from blocking the word “socialist.”  The filter keeps a list of words to flag that usually are associated with spam.   All that had to be done was to delete “Cialis” from the list.  Now you commenters can talk about “socialism” all you want, whether you are for it or against it, and your comment won’t get filtered.

This really opens up the subject matter for this blog.  We can discuss not only socialists but also specialists, commercialism, provincialism, and racialism.

We can also use previously forbidden words like artificial, beneficial, judicial, superficial, social, antisocial, and crucial when followed by an “is” or a noun that begins with those two letters, such as “issue.”

Think of all the things we are now freed to talk about.  Even Cialis.  (If that kind of spam gets through all of the other defenses, though, we might have to take further action.)

At any rate, this will hopefully keep your comments from not showing up and will keep me from having the unpleasant duty of going through the spam that gets filtered looking for legitimate comments that were blocked.  (Also remember that posts with more than two links go into moderation, but those are easier for me to catch and approve.)

A typo with the force of law

A Virginia man sped by a stopped school bus, violating this law:

“A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.”

Read it carefully.  “Who fails to stop”a school bus?”  The law was supposed to read “who fails to stop at” a school bus.  The word “at” was inadvertently left out when the statute was published.

The man, who was pulled over by the police, took his case to court.  The judge admitted that the law, as written, does not forbid what he did, so he found the defendant “not guilty.”

The statute cannot be repaired until the state legislature comes back into session in January.  Until then, I guess, we Virginians can pass school buses unloading kids.   But we will also be guilty of reckless driving unless we stop buses that are stopped.  I’m not sure how to do that.

But this is another lesson that, as an English professor, I want to drive home:  GRAMMATICAL MISTAKES MATTER!

via 2 little letters acquit man who passed stopped school bus.

Religion means "be careful"

In a discussion of how Roman Catholic church bureaucracy and the American Academy of Religion both try to keep the lid on supernatural experiences, the notable Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger cites some interesting etymology:

Sociologists who deal with religion often like to refer to the etymology of the Latin word religio. Supposedly it derives from the verb religare—to re-bind. If so, this points to a very valid insight, most fully formulated by the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim—namely, that religion provides the symbolic ligature that keeps a society together. I understand that Latinists reject this etymology for a different, and actually more interesting one: Religio derives from relegere—to be careful. In other words, the supernatural is a very dangerous reality—one has to approach it with great caution. This understanding was brilliantly formulated by Rudolf Otto, arguably one of the greatest twentieth-century historians of religion, in his book The Idea of the Holy. Religion is always based on an experience, on whatever level of intensity or sophistication, with a reality that is intensely dangerous. . . .

Otto coined the term “numinous” to refer to this experience. His German language too seems to break down, as he falls back on Latin to describe the numinous—it is a mysterium tremendum, both terrifying and alluring. It is totaliter aliter—totally other than the fabric of everyday life. Above all, it is extremely dangerous. This is why, in the Bible and in other sacred scriptures, the first words spoken by an angel to a human being is “Do not be afraid!”

via Defanging the Supernatural | Religion and Other Curiosities.

This, I think, is what is missing in so much of today’s Christianity:  the fear of God.  We have tamed our own religion.  We are no longer “careful,” and so we have lost the “numinous” and thus the sense of holiness.   I would argue that the historic liturgy and sacramental spirituality retain that sense, whereas so much of the trappings of contemporary Christianity, in its worship and art forms, have the effect of domesticating  the supernatural and rendering it banal.

The origin of "OK"

Where did that odd but omnipresent word “OK” come from?  The word has even gone beyond the English language and has become commonplace in languages around the world?  I’ve heard various theories.  But a new book about the expression cites what it calls definitive proof about its etymology.  The book is OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word
Here is a summary of the word’s origins from a review by Jonathan Yardley, who begins by quoting the author, Allan Metcalf:

“Thanks to the published work of Allen Walker Read, who documented the emergence and spread of OK in 1839 and 1840 with literally hundreds of contemporary citations, it is absolutely clear that OK began as a joke in a Boston newspaper and was transformed by politics and a hoax into the expression we still use today. The trail of written evidence from that day to the present is thick and clear. No other origin is plausible. Yet throughout the history of OK there have been doubts. If it weren’t for the overwhelming evidence, the true history of OK would indeed be hard to believe.”

The joke that got it all started is considerably less than funny today. You had to be there, there being Boston in March 1839. A minor controversy had arisen between certain citizens of that city and its neighbor to the southwest, Providence, the details of which are too trivial to merit elaboration in this limited space. Suffice it to say that the editor of the Boston Post was inspired to invent the phrase “o.k.,” which he defined as “all correct.” As Metcalf says, “The joke that o.k. would be an abbreviation for all correct, when neither o nor k was the correct spelling, was such a stretch that it required the explanation ‘o.k. – all correct’ to follow immediately.”

Whether readers of the Post were left rolling in the aisles has not been reported, but the newspaper’s editor, Charles Gordon Greene, was so enamored of his witticism that he employed it again three days later, and he got it on the road to immortality by elevating it to O.K. This was confirmed in October of the same year when the Evening Transcript, the newspaper of Boston’s elite, proclaimed that “the suspension of the U.S. Bank and its dependencies . . . is O.K. (all correct) in this quarter,” but by then OK had even made its way to New York, and the rest is history.

But history rarely if ever is tidy, and the march of OK into the heart of the language was neither rapid nor sure-footed. Metcalf argues that, in addition to “the fad for joking abbreviations in Boston newspapers of the late 1830s,” the process was nudged along by three other factors: the presidential candidacy of Martin Van Buren in 1840, the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the invention of the telegraph. The first was important because Van Buren acquired the nickname “Old Kinderhook” after his home town in Upstate New York: “OK now could have a double meaning: Old Kinderhook was all correct.” Then as the log-cabin legend of Jackson gained steam, it was claimed – falsely – that in his rough frontier style he had declared a friend “Ole Kurrek (all correct) and no mistake.” Finally, the invention of the telegraph made the use of OK as shorthand for “all right” commonplace. After that, it was clear sailing.

via Linguistically, America is A-OK.


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