Following the blog ‘Interesting Literature’ is proving to be an expensive hobby of mine as the excellent curator of that site, Dr Oliver Tearle, regularly reviews books which are just up my street – and ‘Authorisms’ was one of them.
Sure enough, on the strength of Oliver’s recommendation I went ahead and ordered a copy. Despite being an A to Z, I sat down and read the book from cover to cover. It now sits proudly on my shelf reserved for the ever-expanding collection of ‘trivia which I might dip into again’ (Subtitle: Stuff to bore people with).
I have a great love of etymologies – a firm teacher-instinct that understanding the origins of a word helps you better understand it’s proper meaning – but the origins and reasons for neologisms (the purpose of this book by Paul Dickson) is a close cousin which is perhaps actually more interesting.
Dickson writes with a witty flair which helps of course, but mainly it is the fascinating course of events which he charts which amazes the reader. We learn the origins of words like ‘Yahoo’ – both as a word and as the search engine company – and whole expressions such as ‘wine, women and song’ – which, appropriately enough, came from Byron. Of course there’s a great deal of material from the Bard but Dickson limits this and goes into considerable discourse about nature of Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language; exactly how much was first coined by the playwright and how much was simply the first recorded use?
Thankfully, Dickson’s careful selection of Shakespearean quotes means that the book isn’t overwhelmed by the stock and gives plenty of room for the many and varied neologisms of the twentieth century, many of which may surprise you. By way of example, I was certainly astounded to discover that ‘agnostic’, ‘bad-mouthed’, Blabbermouth’ and ‘knock, knock, who’s there?’ are all modern inventions.
I recall long ago a literary friend telling me how disinterested she was over neologisms because you can invent a word to mean anything you wish and it makes the English language a bit pointless to do so. Over the years I’ve come to realise she was dreadfully wrong. The language is saturated with neologisms – old and new – and is all the better for it! Far from pointless, I’m delighted to find that a wealth of words can be traced to just one person – not unlike many of our commonly accepted rules of grammar. Dickson’s book isn’t exhaustive, but it gives you a damned good selection to get going with.
For me, I just like knowing where words come from. Not for any great research of academic endeavour; simply because it’s quite cool, during a party or dinner or other such social function, to be able to chip in with “Ah! Now I happen to know where that word comes from!” Yes, I know: sad isn’t it?
But then I’m the kind of guy who reads books like ‘Authorisms’ and enjoys every single moment of it.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org