Category: Wordsmyth Blog
Neologisms: what makes a new word sticky?
What does it take to invent a word that takes root in the American English language–at least for a while? Ralph Keyes suggests that necessity (new things demand new names) and, on the part of the coiner, not trying too hard, have often been a successful recipe. Read Keyes’ tour of American neologisms here: Is There a Word for That? in The American Scholar.
Meet the “Dame of Dictionaries.”
“I read and read and read and read and read,” she says. In fifth grade, her parents gave her a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and that changed everything. “It unlocked the world for me because I could read at any vocabulary level I wanted,” she says, and went on to negotiate more sophisticated titles, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and The Frogs by Aristophanes. She was diligent about learning words, and would enter all the new ones she came across daily in a notebook. Then she would review them, trying to commit them to memory. The next day, she would add ten or fifteen more, review the words from the prior day, and at the end of each week review the entire week. She carried on this routine for years.”
Her West Village loft is home to 20,000 dictionaries, collected over a lifetime. She is the “Dame of Dictionaries,” Madeline Kripke. Daniel Krieger’s fine article about Kripke is peppered with links to dictionary lore. Read it here.
1. of lumber, having a grain that runs across or diagonally to the length.
2. (informal) stubborn or hard to deal with.
In Latin, focus means “hearth” or “fireplace.” It entered English in the 1600s as a word for the point where rays of light meet. The meaning “center of activity or energy” came into use in the 1700s. Because the hearth was for centuries the center of home life, it is not surprising that, today, several of the meanings of focus have something to do with a center or meeting point.
If you enjoyed this word history, try looking up these words in the Word Explorer Dictionary for Children: weird, compassion, barbecue, curfew, and gossip. Some of these histories will surprise you!
1. a medicine with undisclosed ingredients, advertised without proof as an effective cure; quack remedy.
example: William Radam’s “Microbe Killer,” a nostrum sold in the 1890s, made the claim “Cures all Diseases.” (more…)