Monday, November 23, 2009

Making Up Words

"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/All mimsy were the borogoves,/And the mome raths outgrabe." From Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

I feel certain authors have been making up words since the invention of writing. Some say Shakespeare alone is responsible for over 3,000 new words. Wikipedia, however, states giving him credit for all these words is a misconception because Shakespeare’s works are often the earliest cited written record. The words may have been used in speech prior to ending up in one of his plays. But whether the actual number is 3,000 or 300, he still made up at lot of words.

Alligator, bedroom and employer, are such common words it’s hard to believe they’ve only been around since Shakespearean times. We seldom hear about the words he made up that didn’t make it, such as attasked, bubukles, relume, and smilets. I like the sound of these words. Maybe someday they’ll get a second chance.

If you’re as fascinated by Shakespeare’s made up words as I am, check out There’s an extensive list of words and phrases attributed to Shakespeare, along with the play where they can be found. This site is also where I found the list of his words that didn’t work their way into the English language.

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll is a poem full of nonsense words. Chortled and galumphing are now commonly used words, though none from the above quote seem to have caught on. According to Wikipedia the poem has been translated into many languages. This leads me to wonder how it’s possible to translate a made up word. Does anyone know? Maybe that’s a subject of another blog.

Made up words interest me because my own attempts to create a new word have been unsuccessful. I tried coming up with a sound once. I used something like “aaauufff.” My critique partner thought it was a typo even though he didn’t have any idea what I had been trying to type. If someone who knows me and is familiar with my writing style didn’t understand what I was trying to convey, I felt fairly certain other readers wouldn’t either. I changed it to read, “he emitted a sound like air escaping from a sudden puncture in a tire,” or something similar. "Aaauufff" was a much shorter description.

Another attempt to coin a word was one I borrowed from my grandson. (Yes, I am the type of person who would steal a word from a three-year-old.) While playing with his trains one day, he used the word scrumbling. I liked the sound of it and wrote it down. Recently, when trying to come up with an action word, I saw the note I’d written and decided scrumbling was exactly what I was looking for. I was crushed when I checked and found out that scrumbling was already a term used for free-form crocheting. That was not my intended usage. I had to settle for a much-used word like crumpling.

How do you feel when you run across a made up word when reading? Have you created a new word in something you’ve written?

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, made up words,


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I love them with sound effects in dialogue...nothing wrong with yours!

When I read them in regular text, I get more confused--is this a word I'm not familiar with?

I love "Jabberwocky!"

Mystery Writing is Murder

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I tend to make up words by accident - my mind is working so fast, I put two words together. I've never used any in my stories, though.

My husband's favorite is 'dramstically.'
(Dramatic & drastic combined.)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Sorry - 'Dramastically.'

Looks like I made up another one!

The Old Silly said...

I like made up words that describe a sound or emotion with an element of onomatopoeia to them. I wrote in one of my books that "the lock loosened with a nudge and a thunk against the silence. My editor said, "thunk"? - that's not a word! I said, but you "heard" it, didn't you? And knew what it meant? LOL - she let it go.

Fun topic today, Jane.

Marvin D Wilson

Joanne said...

I enjoy reading made-up words, and find that most of the time, they fit very well in the context of the text I'm reading. They definitely add a certain unexpected spark to the process!

Tamika: said...

I'm not brave enough to create my own words. Not yet anyway!

Maybe something to play around with though.

Helen Ginger said...

The key to the longevity of new words is getting others to use them. Many twilight moons ago, while teaching public speaking at San Antonio College, I gave my students the assignment of, as a group, coming up with a new word. Once they agreed on their word and its meaning, they went out and used it for a week and tracked how many times they heard others, not from the class, using it. It was an interesting experiment. It needs to be catchy and interesting, and fit the meaning. And, Marvin, thunk is a word: I think about you; I thought about you; I have thunk of you.

Straight From Hel

Karen Walker said...

I love this post because it's something I would never think of doing. But it's such fun to read what others "thunk" up.

Marisa Birns said...

It is fun to read and enjoy a made up word and understand it in context of story.

Such as "tintinnabulation" from Poe's The Bells.

Love the sound of it :)

Anonymous said...

I have freiends with a very thick English accent and they use words I've never heard before. Add a few pints of their favorite beer and this triple combination makes their English sound like a completely new language.

Stephen Tremp

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I have always loved Jabberwocky. I don't think I put my made-up words into my writing, but I certainly use them in speech.

"Mook" (rhymes with took) is a word I use when things are going badly or to describe a grey day.


Galen Kindley--Author said...

Another interesting post, Jane. I, too, like the sound of words…not surprising there, I guess. That could be said for all your visitors. I’ve never intentionally made up a word, though I at one point edited a Shakespeare quotation in my first book without anyone knowing. HA! That takes grit, uh?

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Devon Ellington said...

i think sometimes when you try to make up a word, it's harder. Sometimes they just sort of grow organically to deliver the exact shade of meaning you see. I like reading made-up words in a piece, as long as the context is there.

Carol Kilgore said...

I, too, like the sounds of words. I've only made up a few, though, and I've used them in dialogue only.

Alexis Grant said...

Hey -- Can you make up words in nonfiction, too? Or just fiction? :)

Nancy J. Parra said...

I think this is a fabulous post. If I ever make up a word, it's because I think it's a word when it's not...yes, that's me arguing...but I swear people use that word all the time. lol. Thanks for the great post.

Anonymous said...

I think it is important that people keep trying new words. Some will catch on, some won't, but at least the language will continue to grow. Thanks for sharing this post.

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world