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

Snow and Redemption

The snow reminds me of an image in Milton’s Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, in which he associates the work of Christ with the snow of winter, which covers up the dead ground with a mantle of purity, just like Christ covers our sins and the sins of the world. Nature, he says, at the season of Christ’s birth will “hide her guilty front with innocent Snow.”

Blizzard of '09

Blizzard of '09

What our yard looks like. What our sins look like to God (Isaiah 1:18).


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