The Quick 10: How 9 Words Were Coined (and how one wasn't)

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Do you ever wonder why we say the things we say? I remember philosophizing to my mom once that curse words were silly "“ they're just some letters jumbled together, after all, and we're the ones who decided they were "extra" bad. Yeah "“ she didn't go for it. I still don't know the origins of most of those words, but I can tell you about 10 somewhat less offensive words.

serendipity1. Serendipity. "Serendip" was the Persian word for Sri Lanka back in the 1700s when the term was coined by Horace Walpole, a scholar, politician and cousin of Lord Nelson. He had read a story called The Three Princes of Serendip and was describing it to a friend in a letter, explaining that the royal men "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a camel blind of the right eye had traveled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity?"
2. Sci-Fi. There's a bit of debate around this one, but it's generally accepted that the word was created by Forrest J (that's right, no period after "J") Ackerman, who is considered to be the founder of science fiction fandom. In 1953, he was even given a "#1 Fan Personality" Hugo Award, something that had never been done before and has never been done since. Coining terms and phrases was kind of a fun hobby for him "“ he called his house the "Ackermansion" and wore what he called the first "futuristicostume" to the first-ever World Science Fiction Convention in 1939. These days we know "futuristicostumes" as "cosplay."

3. Agnostic. As far as we know, this term was coined in 1876 by Thomas Henry Huxley during a speech he was giving to the Metaphysical Society. Back in the day, "gnosis" was a word often used by church leaders to refer to spiritual knowledge, so Huxley tacked on the "a" to represent skepticism of such.

4. Battery. We're talking the electrical type, not the "assault and battery" type. We have Benjamin Franklin to thank for this one. Ben certainly didn't invent the battery "“ it's been around since ancient times. But he used the word that had previously referred to military weapons to show how much power these little cells packed. We've been using the word ever since, and it sure is easier than saying, "Honey, can you pick up some AAA electrochemical cells at the store? The remote is dead."

DUDE5. Dude. "Dude" may seem like it originated from surfer slang, but this little gem has been around since the late 1800s. It was first used in print in Putnam's Magazine in 1876, but we have evidence that it has been in the spoken vocabulary since 1873. There were two definitions at the time "“ one referred to a well-dressed man and the other meant a guy who was unfamiliar with city life. In 1883, a political cartoon mocked the fancy dress of new president Chester A. Arthur, depicting a stylish man with the caption, "According to your cloth you've cut your coat, O Dude of all the White House residents; We trust that will help you with the vote, When next we go nominating Presidents." Um. Zing?

6. Cool. Obviously the word has meant "cold" to a lesser degree for quite some time, but we think we know who started using it to denote approval. His name was Lester Young and he was one of the most well-regarded and respected saxophonists of the Jazz Age. Billie Holiday called him "Prez," as in President of all Saxophonists. He also popularized "bread" as a reference to money and liked to say, "I feel a draft" when he felt as if someone was being racist.

7. Robot. We know the word because of a play by Czech writer Karel ÄŒapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which was first published in 1920. The play revolves around a factory that makes robots, but these days we would be more likely to call them androids instead of robots because of their similarity to humans. When ÄŒapek was said to be the creator of the word, he quickly sidestepped the honor and said it was actually his brother, painted and writer Josef ÄŒapek, who actually invented the word. Later, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took it a step further and coined the term "robotics" to mean the study of such mechanical workings.

8. Puke. This is debatable, because although Shakespeare is said to have coined more words in the English language than anyone else (the number is thought to be in the thousands), most scholars will argue that Shakespeare only had the first written instance of these words and would pick them up from spoken slang that he heard. But if you go with the "Shakespeare totally invented all of those words himself" theory, then he invented "puking" when he wrote As You Like It:

And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms."

9. Dinosaur. Dinosaurs themselves have been around for millennia (or at least their remains have been), but the word to describe them wasn't coined until 1842, which paleontologist Richard Owen combined the Greek words for powerful/terrible (deinos) and lizard/reptile (sauros) to come up with "dinosaur."

archimedes10. Eureka. Legend has it that we have Archimedes himself to thank for the word "Eureka!" as in, "Aha!" He was supposedly pondering a problem "“ how to tell if a crown was made out of all gold or if the artist had lied and mixed it with silver "“ while soaking in a bathtub. He suddenly observed the amount of water that his body was displacing from the tub and realized that a crown made of mixed materials would displace more water than one made of pure gold and leapt out of the tub yelling, "Eureka! Eureka!" which translated to, "I've found it, I've found it!" He was so excited that he sprang out of the bathtub and ran through the streets sans clothes to proclaim his discovery.
A nice story, but it likely never happened, says Scientific American. Scientists as far back as Galileo have said that Archimedes was so talented and intelligent that he could have managed a far more precise result using his own already proven methods.

Do you know any interesting word origins? I'm a geek for this kind of stuff, so definitely feel free to enlighten us in the comments.

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January 14, 2010 - 10:35am
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