25 words penned by 20th Century writers

Impress your friends and colleagues by knowing who coined words such as cyberspace, factoid, meme, piehole, debunk and more from years ago.

This post lists a number of words that were introduced to the English lexicon by novelists and other writers during the 20th Century.

1. Beep: Scientist and novelist Arthur C. Clarke came up with this onomatopoeic word for a small, high-pitched signal.

2. Blurb: Humorist Gelet Burgess coined this term for a short piece of promotional copy.

3. Catch-22: Novelist Joseph Heller named his best-known novel after his term for the concept of a lose-lose predicament.

4. Cojones: Novelist Ernest Hemingway borrowed the Spanish word meaning “testicles” to refer to courage.

5. Cyberspace: Novelist William Gibson combined the extant prefix cyber with space to describe an online environment.

6. Debunk: Novelist William E. Woodward created this word to describe the concept of disproving fraudulent claims.

7. Doublethink: Novelist George Orwell named the concept of having contradictory simultaneous ideas.

8. Dreamscape: Poet Sylvia Plath came up with this word for a dreamlike scene.

9. Factoid: Novelist Norman Mailer coined this term for an invented fact or a false claim that becomes accepted as fact; by extension, it has also come to refer to a trivial fact.

10. Groupthink: Writer William H. Whyte coined this word, which refers to self-deceiving conformity, on the model of doublethink.

11. Litterbug: Writer Alice Rush McKeon came up with this term for people who carelessly drop litter.

12. Meme: Scientist Richard Dawkins coined this term for behaviors, ideas, or styles passed between people; it is now widely associated with images from popular culture that express a concept.

13. Microcomputer: Scientist and novelist Isaac Asimov attached a prefix meaning “very small” to computer to create a word for a portable computing device.

14. Nerd: Writer Dr. Seuss gave no definition for this nonsense word he coined and did not associate it with any of his illustrations, but it came to refer to a socially inept person, especially one with advanced academic or intellectual skills but poor social skills.

15. Nymphet: Novelist Vladimir Nabokov came up with this word for a sexually precocious pubescent girl; by extension, it came to apply to an attractive young woman.

16. Piehole: Novelist Stephen King introduced this slang for the mouth, with the connotation that someone associated with the word (as when told, “Shut your piehole”) should use one’s mouth only for eating because the thoughts the person voices with it are not worthwhile for anyone to hear.

17. Quark: Scientist Murray Gell-Mann, inspired by writer James Joyce’s use of the word in its existing sense of “a fermented dairy product resembling cottage cheese,” adopted the spelling of that word for a term he had coined that referred to a type of subatomic particle.

18. Robot: The brother of Czech writer Karel Čapek suggested that he use robota, Czech for “forced labor,” as a name for machines that resemble and perform tasks normally carried out by humans; it was translated into English as robot, and Isaac Asimov came up with the noun robotics to refer to the science behind such machines, as well as the adjective robotic.

19. Scaredy-cat: Satirist Dorothy Parker came up with this slang word for a timid person.

20. Superman: Playwright George Bernard Shaw translated philosopher Friedrich Nietzche’s term Übermensch for the title of his play Man and Superman; the word also applies generically to a person with extraordinary abilities as well as to the superhero of that name.

21. Tightwad: Humorist George Ade used this term in a colloquial retelling of fairy tales.

22. Tween: Philologist and novelist J. R. R. Tolkien coined this word to describe hobbit adolescence, alluding to the span of life known as the twenties (hobbits came of age in their early thirties), but it later arose independently as a truncation of between to refer to the transitional years between childhood and adolescence.

23. Unputdownable: Mystery writer Raymond Chandler came up with this word for a compelling read.

24. Whodunit: Book critic Donald Gordon described a mystery novel with this word.

25. Workaholic: Psychologist Wayne E. Oates coined this term on the model of alcoholic; although it was not the first -aholic coinage, its popularity inspired many similar constructions.

A version of this article first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.


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