Thomas Jefferson coined 110 new words.

The American Scholar has taken a look at the unpredictability of whether or not a newly coined word sticks in our language or disappears without a trace. Turns out Thomas Jefferson was a prolific inventor of new words that stuck. He even came up with the word we use for coming up with a newly coined word: neologize.

Soon after they arrived in America, British settlers got busy with an important task: reinventing their language. This called for repurposing old words and coining new ones. Colonists called the plump, smelly rodents they encountered in swamps muske rats. Other forms of wildlife were named katydids, bobcats, catfish, and whippoorwills. To these settlers, sleigh improved on sledge, and the help reflected their values better than servants. “The new circumstances under which we are placed,” observed Thomas Jefferson, “call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”

“Necessity,” he concluded, “obliges us to neologize.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Jefferson is the first person known to have used the term neologize, in an 1813 letter. It is one of 110 words whose earliest use the OED credits to him. Others include indescribable, pedicure, and electioneer.

Once they caught wind of all the new words being coined across the Atlantic, self-appointed guardians of the King’s English were rather cross. When Jefferson used the new word belittle in his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia, a British critic exclaimed, “It may be an elegant [word] in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” Undaunted, the third president proceeded to coin Anglophobia.

— Ralph Keyes, The American Scholar

Read Is There A Word For That? by Ralph Keyes in The American Scholar. 


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