The Blog of Toledo Lucas County Public Library
What do the words robot, chortle and malapropism all have in common?
Answer: they were all coined in fiction.
While fiction authors dazzle us with their ability to conjure fantastic worlds and unforgettable characters, their creativity has often been obstructed by mankind’s limited vocabulary. Hence, fiction authors have had to create their own words.
Many of these “made up” words have faded to obscurity since their first utterance. But, some have become a part of our common vernacular. Take a look at these twelve words and their literary origins - some of them may surprise you.
Literary Origins of Words
Likely an alteration of the Latin word blatire, meaning "to babble." The word was coined by Edmund Spencer in his epic poem "The Faerie Queen" published in 1590. In the poem Spencer describes the Blatant Beast, a thousand-tongued monster representing slander.
"The Faerie Queene" by Edmund Spencer
Possibly a combination of chuckle and snort. Coined by Lewis Carroll in his iconic poem, "The Jabberwocky" originally published in 1871.
"O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy."
"Through the Looking Glass" by Lewis Carroll
This word comes from the character Gargantua, a giant from Francis Rabelais’ 5 book series "Gargantua and Pantagruel" published between 1693–1694.
"Gargantua and Pantagruel" by Francis Rabelais
From the character Ms. Malaprop in Sheridan’s "The Rivals" published in 1775, who was known for her comical misuse of complex words.
"The Rivals" by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
From the character Mentor who, in Homer’s Odyssey, is entrusted with the care and Teaching of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.
"The Odyssey" by Homer
The first instance of this word in print was Dr Seuss’ "If I Ran the Zoo" published in 1950. Here, the word describes an imaginary creature that the narrator of the story wishes to own. Possibly a play on “nert,” a word commonly used in the 1940s to describe eccentric or nutty people.
"If I Ran the Zoo" by Dr. Seuss
In John Milton’s "Paradise Lost," published in the year 1667, Pandemonium is the name of the capitol of Hell. The prefix “pan” denotes “all” and “demon” means… “demon.” The word is commonly used to describe utter chaos and confusion.
"Paradise Lost" by John Milton
[roh-buh t, -bot]
From the Czech word robota meaning “forced labor.” First used in its current form by Karel Čapek in his play "Rossum’s Universal Robots" from 1920.
"Rossum’s Universal Robots" by Karel Čapek
Coined by the art historian Horace Walpole, inspired by "The Three Princes of Serendip" originally published in Venice in 1557. According to Walpole, he was inspired by the way the princes in the story were "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of."
"The Three Princes of Serendip" by Elizabeth Jamison Hodges
[sten-tawr-ee-uh n, -tohr-]
Named after Stentor, Greek herald during the Trojan War. Homer’s "Iliad" describes Stentor’s voice as being loud as 50 men. Now the word is used synonymously with “loud.”
"The Iliad" by Homer
As in the narrow-brimmed hat often mistaken for a fedora. Named after George du Maurier’s novel Trilby from 1894. The book was adapted to Theatre in 1895, the opening night of which saw many trilby hats on display.
"Trilby" by George du Maurier
From the Greek phrase eu-topos, meaning “good place.” The nearly identical ou-topos means “no place” or “nowhere.” It’s no wonder that Thomas More chose “Utopia” as the name for the fictional island society in his 1516 book of political satire.
"Utopia" by Thomas More