Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

History of New Words.

Neology, or the novelty of words and phrases, is an innovation, which, with the opulence of our present language, the English philologer is most jealous to allow; but we have puritans or precisians of English, superstitiously nice! The fantastic coinage of affectation or caprice will cease to circulate from its own alloy; but shall we reject the ore of fine workmanship and solid weight? There is no government mint of words, and it is no statutable offence to invent a felicitous or daring expression unauthorised by Mr. Todd! When a man of genius, in the heat of his pursuits or his feelings, has thrown out a peculiar word, it probably conveyed more precision or energy than any other established word, otherwise he is but an ignorant pretender!

Julius Cæsar, who, unlike other great captains, is authority on words as well as about blows, wrote a large treatise on “Analogy,” in which that fine genius counselled to “avoid every unusual word as a rock!”1 The cautious Quintilian, as might be expected, opposes all innovation in language. “If the new word is well received, small is the glory; if rejected, it raises laughter.”2 This only marks the penury of his feelings in this species of adventure. The great legislator of words, who lived when his own language was at its acmé, seems undecided, yet pleaded for this liberty. “Shall that which the Romans allowed to Cæcilius and to Plautus be refused to Virgil and Varius?” The answer to the question might not be favourable to the inquirer. While a language is forming, writers are applauded for extending its limits; when established, for restricting themselves to them. But this is to imagine that a perfect language can exist! The good sense and observation of Horace perceived that there may be occasions where necessity must become the mother of invented words:—

———— Si forte necesse est

Indiciis monstrare recentibus abdita rerum.

If you write of things abstruse or new,

Some of your own inventing may be used,

So it be seldom and discreetly done.


But Horace’s canon for deciding on the legality of the new invention, or the standard by which it is to be tried, will not serve to assist the inventor of words:—

———— licuit, semperque licebit,

Signatum præsente nota procudere nummum.3

This præsens nota, or public stamp, can never be affixed to any new coinage of words: for many received at a season have perished with it.4 The privilege of stamping words is reserved for their greatest enemy — Time itself! and the inventor of a new word must never flatter himself that he has secured the public adoption, for he must lie in his grave before he can enter the dictionary.

In Willes’ address to the reader, prefixed to the collection of Voyages published in 1577, he finds fault with Eden’s translation from Peter Martyr, for using words that “smelt too much of the Latine.” We should scarcely have expected to find among them ponderouse, portentouse, despicable, obsequious, homicide, imbibed, destructive, prodigious. The only words he quotes, not thoroughly naturalised, are dominators, ditionaries, (subjects), solicitute (careful).

The Tatler, No. 230, introduces several polysyllables introduced by military narrations, “which (he says), if they attack us too frequently, we shall certainly put them to flight, and cut off the rear;” every one of them still keep their ground.

Half the French words used affectedly by Melantha, in Dryden’s Marriage à-la-Mode, as innovations in our language, are now in common use, naïveté, foible, chagrin, grimace, embarras, double entendre, equivoque, eclaircissement, ridicule, all these words, which she learns by heart to use occasionally, are now in common use. A Dr. Russel called Psalm-singers Ballad-singers, having found the Song of Solomon in an old translation, the Ballad of Ballads, for which he is reproached by his antagonist for not knowing that the signification of words alters with time; should I call him knave, he ought not to be concerned at it, for the Apostle Paul is also called a knave of Jesus Christ.5

Unquestionably, neology opens a wide door to innovation; scarcely has a century passed since our language was patched up with Gallic idioms, as in the preceding century it was piebald with Spanish, and with Italian, and even with Dutch. The political intercourse of islanders with their neighbours has ever influenced their language. In Elizabeth’s reign Italian phrases6 and Netherland words were imported; in James and Charles the Spanish framed the style of courtesy; in Charles the Second the nation and the language were equally Frenchified. Yet such are the sources from whence we have often derived some of the wealth of our language!

There are three foul corruptors of a language: caprice, affectation, and ignorance! Such fashionable cant terms as “theatricals,” and “musicals,” invented by the flippant Topham, still survive among his confraternity of frivolity. A lady eminent for the elegance of her taste, and of whom one of the best judges, the celebrated Miss Edgeworth, observed to me, that she spoke the purest and most idiomatic English she had ever heard, threw out an observation which might be extended to a great deal of our present fashionable vocabulary. She is now old enough, she said, to have lived to hear the vulgarisms of her youth adopted in drawing-room circles.7 To lunch, now so familiar from the fairest lips, in her youth was only known in the servants’ hall. An expression very rife of late among our young ladies, a nice man, whatever it may mean, whether that the man resemble a pudding or something more nice, conveys the offensive notion that they are ready to eat him up! When I was a boy, it was an age of bon ton; this good tone mysteriously conveyed a sublime idea of fashion; the term, imported late in the eighteenth century, closed with it. Twaddle for a while succeeded bore; but bore has recovered the supremacy. We want another Swift to give a new edition of his “Polite Conversation.” A dictionary of barbarisms too might be collected from some wretched neologists, whose pens are now at work! Lord Chesterfield, in his exhortations to conform to Johnson’s Dictionary, was desirous, however, that the great lexicographer should add as an appendix, “A neological dictionary, containing those polite, though perhaps not strictly grammatical, words and phrases commonly used, and sometimes understood by the beau-monde.8 This last phrase was doubtless a contribution! Such a dictionary had already appeared in the French language, drawn up by two caustic critics, who in the Dictionnaire néologique à l’usage des beaux Esprits du Siècle collected together the numerous unlucky inventions of affectation, with their modern authorities! A collection of the fine words and phrases, culled from some very modern poetry, might show the real amount of the favours bestowed on us.

The attempts of neologists are, however, not necessarily to be condemned; and we may join with the commentators of Aulus Gellius, who have lamented the loss of a chapter of which the title only has descended to us. That chapter would have demonstrated what happens to all languages, that some neologisms, which at first are considered forced or inelegant, become sanctioned by use, and in time are quoted as authority in the very language which, in their early stage, they were imagined to have debased.

The true history of men’s minds is found in their actions; their wants are indicated by their contrivances; and certain it is that in highly cultivated ages we discover the most refined intellects attempting NEOLOGISMS.9 It would be a subject of great curiosity to trace the origin of many happy expressions, when, and by whom created. Plato substituted the term Providence for fate; and a new system of human affairs arose from a single word. Cicero invented several; to this philosopher we owe the term of moral philosophy, which before his time was called the philosophy of manners. But on this subject we are perhaps more interested by the modern than by the ancient languages. Richardson, the painter of the human heart, has coined some expressions to indicate its little secret movements, which are admirable: that great genius merited a higher education and more literary leisure than the life of a printer could afford. Montaigne created some bold expressions, many of which have not survived him; his incuriosité, so opposite to curiosity, well describes that state of negligence where we will not learn that of which we are ignorant. With us the word incurious was described by Heylin, 1656, as an unusual word; it has been appropriately adopted by our best writers, although we still want incuriosity. Charron invented étrangeté unsuccessfully, but which, says a French critic, would be the true substantive of the word étrange; our Locke is the solitary instance produced for “foreignness” for “remoteness or want of relation to something.” Malherbe borrowed from the Latin, insidieux, sécurité, which have been received; but a bolder word, dévouloir, by which he proposed to express cesser de vouloir, has not. A term, however, expressive and precise. Corneille happily introduced invaincu in a verse in the Cid,

Vous êtes invaincu, mais non pas invincible.

Yet this created word by their great poet has not sanctioned this fine distinction among the French, for we are told that it is almost a solitary instance. Balzac was a great inventor of neologisms. Urbanité and féliciter were struck in his mint. “Si le mot féliciter n’est pas française, il le sera l’année qui vient;” so confidently proud was the neologist, and it prospered as well as urbanité, of which he says, “Quand l’usage aura muri parmi nous un mot de si mauvais gout, et corrigé l’amertume de la nouveauté qui s’y peut trouver, nous nous y accoutumerons comme aux autres que nous avons emprunté de la même langue.” Balzac was, however, too sanguine in some other words; for his délecter, his sériosité, &c. still retain their “bitterness of novelty.”

Menage invented a term of which an equivalent is wanting in our language; “J’ai fait prosateur à l’imitation de l’italien prosatore, pour dire un homme qui écrit en prose.” To distinguish a prose from a verse writer, we once had “a proser.” Drayton uses it; but this useful distinction has unluckily degenerated, and the current sense is so daily urgent, that the purer sense is irrecoverable.

When D’Albancourt was translating Lucian, he invented in French the words indolence and indolent, to describe a momentary languor, rather than that habitual indolence in which sense they are now accepted; and in translating Tacitus, he created the word turbulemment; but it did not prosper any more than that of temporisement. Segrais invented the word impardonnable, which, after having been rejected, was revived, and is equivalent to our expressive unpardonable. Molière ridiculed some neologisms of the Précieuses of his day; but we are too apt to ridicule that which is new, and which we often adopt when it becomes old. Molière laughed at the term s’encanailler, to describe one who assumed the manners of a blackguard; the expressive word has remained in the language. The meaning is disputed as well as the origin is lost of some novel terms. This has happened to a word in daily use — Fudge! It is a cant term not in Grose, and only traced by Todd not higher than to Goldsmith. It is, however, no invention of his. In a pamphlet, entitled “Remarks upon the Navy,” 1700, the term is declared to have been the name of a certain nautical personage who had lived in the lifetime of the writer. “There was, sir, in our time, one Captain Fudge, commander of a merchantman, who upon his return from a voyage, how ill-fraught soever his ship was, always brought home his owners a good cargo of lies; so much that now, aboard ship, the sailors, when they hear a great lie told, cry out, ‘You fudge it!’” It is singular that such an obscure byword among sailors should have become one of the most popular in our familiar style; and not less, that recently at the bar, in a court of law, its precise meaning perplexed plaintiff and defendant and their counsel. I think it does not signify mere lies, but bouncing lies, or rhodomontades.

There are two remarkable French words created by the Abbé de Saint Pierre, who passed his meritorious life in the contemplation of political morality and universal benevolence — bienfaisance and gloriole. He invented gloriole as a contemptuous diminutive of glorie; to describe that vanity of some egotists, so proud of the small talents which they may have received from nature or from accident. Bienfaisance first appeared in this sentence: “L’Esprit de la vraie religion et le principal but de l’evangile c’est la bienfaisance, c’est-à-dire la pratique de la charité envers le prochain.” This word was so new, that in the moment of its creation this good man explained its necessity and origin. Complaining that “the word ‘charity’ is abused by all sorts of Christians in the persecution of their enemies, and even heretics affirm that they are practising Christian charity in persecuting other heretics, I have sought for a term which might convey to us a precise idea of doing good to our neighbours, and I can form none more proper to make myself understood than the term of bienfaisance, good-doing. Let those who like, use it; I would only be understood, and it is not equivocal.” The happy word was at first criticised, but at length every kind heart found it responded to its own feeling. Some verses from Voltaire, alluding to the political reveries of the good abbé, notice the critical opposition; yet the new word answered to the great rule of Horace.

Certain législateur, dont la plume féconde

Fit tant de vains projets pour le bien du monde,

Et qui depuis trente ans écrit pour des ingrats,

Vient de créer un mot qui manque à Vaugelas:

Ce mot est Bienfaisance; il me plaît, il rassemble

Si le cœur en est cru, bien des vertus ensemble.

Petits grammairiens, grands précepteurs de sots,

Qui pesez la parole et mesurez les mots,

Pareille expression vous semble hazardée,

Mais l’univers entier doit en cherir l’idée!

The French revolutionists, in their rage for innovation, almost barbarised the pure French of the Augustan age of their literature, as they did many things which never before occurred; and sometimes experienced feelings as transitory as they were strange. Their nomenclature was copious; but the revolutionary jargon often shows the danger and the necessity of neologisms. They form an appendix to the Academy Dictionary. Our plain English has served to enrich this odd mixture of philology and politics: Club, clubiste, comité, jure, juge de paix, blend with their terrorisme, lanterner, a verb active, lévee en masse, noyades, and the other verb active, septembriser, &c. The barbarous term demoralisation is said to have been the invention of the horrid capuchin Chabot; and the remarkable expression of arrière pensée belonged exclusively in its birth to the jesuitic astuteness of the Abbé Sieyes, that political actor, who, in changing sides, never required prompting in his new part!

A new word, the result of much consideration with its author, or a term which, though unknown to the language, conveys a collective assemblage of ideas by a fortunate designation, is a precious contribution of genius; new words should convey new ideas. Swift, living amidst a civil war of pamphlets, when certain writers were regularly employed by one party to draw up replies to the other, created a term not to be found in our dictionaries, but which, by a single stroke, characterises these hirelings; he called them answer-jobbers. We have not dropped the fortunate expression from any want of its use, but of perception in our lexicographers. The celebrated Marquis of Lansdowne introduced a useful word, which has of late been warmly adopted in France as well as in England — to liberalise; the noun has been drawn out of the verb — for in the marquis’s time that was only an abstract conception which is now a sect; and to liberalise was theoretically introduced before the liberals arose.10 It is curious to observe that as an adjective it had formerly in our language a very opposite meaning to its recent one. It was synonymous with “libertine or licentious;” we have “a liberal villain” and “a most profane and liberal counsellor;” we find one declaring “I have spoken too liberally.” This is unlucky for the liberals, who will not —

Give allowance to our liberal jests

Upon their persons —

Beaumont and Fletcher.

Dr. Priestley employed a forcible, but not an elegant term, to mark the general information which had begun in his day; this he frequently calls “the spread of knowledge.” Burke attempted to brand with a new name that set of pert, petulant, sophistical sciolists, whose philosophy the French, since their revolutionary period, have distinguished as philosophism, and the philosophers themselves as philosophistes. He would have designated them as literators, but few exotic words will circulate; new words must be the coinage of our own language to blend with the vernacular idiom. Many new words are still wanted. We have no word by which we could translate the otium of the Latins, the dillettante of the Italians, the alembiqué of the French, as an epithet to describe that sublimated ingenuity which exhausts the mind, till, like the fusion of the diamond, the intellect itself disappears. A philosopher, in an extensive view of a subject in all its bearings, may convey to us the result of his last considerations by the coinage of a novel and significant expression, as this of Professor Dugald Stewart — political religionism. Let me claim the honour of one pure neologism. I ventured to introduce the term of Father-land to describe our natale solum; I have lived to see it adopted by Lord Byron and by Mr. Southey, and the word is now common. A lady has even composed both the words and the air of a song on “Father-land.” This energetic expression may therefore be considered as authenticated; and patriotism may stamp it with its glory and its affection. Father-land is congenial with the language in which we find that other fine expression mother-tongue. The patriotic neologism originated with me in Holland, when, in early life, it was my daily pursuit to turn over the glorious history of its independence under the title of Vaderlandsche Historie — the history of Father-land!

If we acknowledge that the creation of some neologisms may sometimes produce the beautiful, the revival of the dead is the more authentic miracle; for a new word must long remain doubtful, but an ancient word happily recovered rests on a basis of permanent strength; it has both novelty and authority. A collection of picturesque words, found among our ancient writers, would constitute a precious supplement to the history of our language. Far more expressive than our term of executioner is their solemn one of the deathsman; than our vagabond, their scatterling; than our idiot or lunatic, their moonling, — a word which, Mr. Gifford observes, should not have been suffered to grow obsolete. Herrick finely describes by the term pittering the peculiar shrill and short cry of the grasshopper: the cry of the grasshopper is pit! pit! pit! quickly repeated. Envy “dusking the lustre” of genius is a verb lost for us, but which gives a more precise expression to the feeling than any other words which we could use.

The late Dr. Boucher, in the prospectus of his proposed Dictionary, did me the honour, then a young writer, to quote an opinion I had formed early in life of the purest source of neology, which is in the revival of old words.

Words that wise Bacon or brave Rawleigh spake!

We have lost many exquisite and picturesque expressions through the dulness of our lexicographers, or by the deficiency in that profounder study of our writers which their labours require far more than they themselves know. The natural graces of our language have been impoverished. The genius that throws its prophetic eye over the language, and the taste that must come from Heaven, no lexicographer imagines are required to accompany him amidst a library of old books!

1 Aulus Gellius, lib. i. c. 10.

2 Instit. lib. i. c. 5.

3 This verse was corrected by Bentley procudere nummum, instead of producere nomen, which the critics agree is one of his happy conjectures.

4 Henry Cockeram’s curious little “English Dictionarie, or an Interpretation of hard English words”, 12mo, 1631, professes to give in its first book “the choicest words themselves now in use, wherewith our language is inriched and become so copious.” Many have not survived, such as the following:—

Acyrologicall An improper speech.
Adacted Driven in by force.
Blandiloquy Flattering speech.
Compaginate To set together that which is broken.
Concessation Loytering.
Delitigate To scold, or chide vehemently.
Depalmate To give one a box on the ear.
Esuriate To hunger.
Strenuitie Activity.

Curiously enough, this author notes some words as those “now out of use, and onely used of some ancient writers,” but which we now commonly use. Such are the following:—

Abandon To forsake or cast off.
Abate To make lesse, diminish, or take from.

5 A most striking instance of the change of meaning in a word is in the old law-term let —“without let or hindrance;” meaning void of all opposition. Hence, “I will let you,” meant “I will hinder you;” and not as we should now think, “I will give you free leave.”

6 Shakspeare makes “Ancient Pistol” use a new-coined Italian word, when he speaks of being “better accommodated;” to the great delight of Justice Shallow, who exclaims, “It comes from accommodo — a good phrase!” And Ben Jonson, in his “Tale of a Tub,” ridicules Inigo Jones’s love of two words he often used:—

———— If it conduce

To the design, whate’er is feasible,

I can express.

7 The term pluck, once only known to the prize-ring, has now got into use in general conversation, and also into literature, as a term indicative of ready courage.

8 Such terms as “patent to the public”—“normal condition”—“crass behaviour,” are the inventions of the last few years.

9 Shakspeare has a powerfully-composed line in the speech of the Duke of Burgundy, (Henry V. Act v. Sc. 2), when, describing the fields overgrown with weeds, he exclaims —

—— The coulter rusts,

That should deracinate such savagery.

10 The “Quarterly Review” recently marked the word liberalise in italics as a strange word, undoubtedly not aware of its origin. It has been lately used by Mr. Dugald Stewart, “to liberalise the views.”— Dissert. 2nd part, p. 138.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53