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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 15680

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

As we have seen, languages while they are living are always growing and changing. We have seen how new names have been made as time went on. But many new words besides names are constantly being added to a language; for just as grown-up people use more words than children, and educated people use more words than uneducated or less educated people, so, too, nations use more words as time goes on. Every word must have been used a first time by some one; but of course it is impossible to know who were the makers of most words. Even new words cannot often be traced to their makers. Some one uses a new word, and others pick it up, and it passes into general use, while everybody has forgotten who made it.

But one very common way in which people learn to use new words is through reading the books of great writers. Sometimes these writers have made new words which their readers have seen to be very good, and have then begun to use themselves. Sometimes these great writers have made use of words which, though not new, were very rare, and immediately these words have become popular and ordinary words.

The first great English poet was Chaucer, and the great English philologists feel sure that he must have made many new words and made many rare words common; but it is not easy to say that Chaucer made any particular word, because we do not know enough of the language which was in use at that time to say so. One famous phrase of Chaucer is often quoted now: "after the schole of Stratford-atte-Bowe," which he used in describing the French spoken by one of the Canterbury Pilgrims in his great poem. He meant that this was not pure French, but French spoken in the way and with the peculiar accent used at Stratford (a part of London near Bow Church). We now often use the phrase to describe any accent which is not perfect.

But though we do not know for certain which words Chaucer introduced, we do know that this first great English poet must have introduced many, especially French words; while Wyclif, the first great English prose writer, who translated part of the Bible from Latin into English, must also have given us many new words, especially from the Latin. The English language never changed so much after the time of Chaucer and Wyclif as it had done before.

The next really great English poet, Edmund Spenser, who wrote his wonderful poem, "The Faerie Queene," in the days of Queen Elizabeth, invented a great many new words. Some of these were seldom or never used afterwards, but some became ordinary English words. Sometimes his new words were partly formed out of old words which were no longer used. The word elfin, which became quite a common word, seems to have been invented by Spenser. He called a boasting knight by the name Braggadocio, and we still use the word braggadocio for vain boasting. A common expression which we often find used in romantic tales, and especially in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, derring-do, meaning "adventurous action," was first used by Spenser. He, however, took it from Chaucer, who had used it as a verb, speaking of the dorring-do (or "daring to do") that belonged to a knight. Spenser made a mistake in thinking Chaucer had used it as a noun, and used it so himself, making in this way quite a new and very well-sounding word.

Another word which Spenser made, and which is still sometimes used, was fool-happy; but other words, like idlesse, dreariment, drowsihead, are hardly seen outside his poetry. One reason for this is that Spenser was telling stories of quaint and curious things, and he used quaint and curious words which would not naturally pass into ordinary language.

The next great name in English literature, and the greatest name of all, is Shakespeare. Shakespeare influenced the English language more than any writer before or since. First of all he made a great many new words, some very simple and others more elaborate, but all of them so suitable that they have become a part of the language. Such a common word as bump, which it would be difficult to imagine ourselves without, is first found in Shakespeare's writings. Hurry, which seems to be the only word to express what it stands for, seems also to have been made by Shakespeare, and also the common word dwindle. Some other words which Shakespeare made are lonely, orb (meaning "globe"), illumine, and home-keeping.

Many others might be quoted, but the great influence which Shakespeare had on the English language was not through the new words he made, but in the way his expressions and phrases came to be used as ordinary expressions. Many people are constantly speaking Shakespeare without knowing it, for the phrases he used were so exactly right and expressive that they have been repeated ever since, and often, of course, by people who do not know where they first came from. We can only mention a few of these phrases, such as "a Daniel come to judgment," which Shylock says to Portia in the "Merchant of Venice," and which is often used now sarcastically. From the same play comes the expression "pound of flesh," which is now often used to mean what a person knows to be due to him and is determined to have. "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," "to gild refined gold," "to wear one's heart upon one's sleeve,"-these and hundreds of other phrases are known by most people to come from Shakespeare; they are used by many who do not. They describe so splendidly so many things which are constantly happening that they seem to be the only or at least the best way of expressing the meanings they signify.

But not only have hundreds of Shakespeare's own words and phrases passed into everyday English, but the way in which he turned his phrases is often imitated. It was Shakespeare who used the phrase to "out-Herod Herod," and now this is a common form of speech. A statesman could now quite suitably use the phrase to "out-Asquith Asquith."

The next great poet after Shakespeare was Milton. He also gave us a great many new words and phrases, but not nearly so many as Shakespeare. Still there are a few phrases which are now so common that many people use them without even knowing that they come from Milton's writings. Some of these are "the human face divine," "to hide one's diminished head," "a dim religious light," "the light fantastic toe." It was Milton who invented the name pandemonium for the home of the devils, and now people regularly speak of a state of horrible noise and disorder as "a pandemonium." Many of those who use the expression have not the slightest idea of where it came from. The few words which we know were made by Milton are very expressive words. It was he who invented anarch for the spirit of anarchy or disorder, and no one has found a better word to express the idea. Satanic, moon-struck, gloom (to mean "darkness"), echoing, and bannered are some more well-known words invented by Milton.

It is not always the greatest writers who have given us the greatest number of new words. A great prose writer of the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, is looked upon as a classical writer, but his works are only read by a few, not like the great works of Shakespeare and Milton. Yet Sir Thomas Browne has given many new words to the English language. This is partly because he deliberately made many new words. One book of his gave us several hundreds of these words. The reason his new words remained in the language was that there was a real need of them.

Many seventeenth-century writers of plays invented hundreds of new words, but they tried to invent curious and queer-sounding words, and very few people liked them. These words never really became part of the English language. They are "one-man" words, to be found only in the writings of their inventors. Yet it was one of these fanciful wri

ters who invented the very useful word dramatist for "a writer of plays."

But the words made by Sir Thomas Browne were quite different. Such ordinary words as medical, literary, and electricity were first used by him. He made many others too, not quite so common, but words which later writers and speakers could hardly do without.

Another seventeenth-century writer, John Evelyn, the author of the famous Diary which has taught us so much about the times in which he lived, was a great maker of words. Most of his new words were made from foreign words, and as he was much interested in art and music, many of his words relate to these things. It was Evelyn who introduced the word opera into English, and also outline, altitude, monochrome ("a painting in one shade"), and pastel, besides many other less common words.

Robert Boyle, a great seventeenth-century writer on science, gave many new scientific words to the English language. The words pendulum and intensity were first used by him, and it was he who first used fluid as a noun.

The poets Dryden and Pope gave us many new words too.

Dr. Johnson, the maker of the first great English dictionary, added some words to the language. As everybody knows who has read that famous book, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Dr. Johnson was a man who always said just what he thought, and had no patience with anything like stupidity. The expression fiddlededee, another way of telling a person that he is talking nonsense, was made by him. Irascibility, which means "tendency to be easily made cross or angry," is also one of his words, and so are the words literature and comic.

The great statesman and political writer, Edmund Burke, was the inventor of many of our commonest words relating to politics. Colonial, colonization, electioneering, diplomacy, financial, and many other words which are in everyday use now, were made by him.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a great revival in English literature, since known as the "Romantic Movement." After the rather stiff manners and writing of the eighteenth century, people began to have an enthusiasm for all sorts of old and adventurous things, and a new love for nature and beauty. Sir Walter Scott was the great novelist of the movement, and also wrote some fine, stirring ballads and poems. In these writings, which dealt chiefly with the adventurous deeds of the Middle Ages, Scott used again many old words which had been forgotten and fallen out of use. He made them everyday words again.

The old word chivalrous, which had formerly been used to describe the institutions connected with knighthood, he used in a new way, and the word has kept this meaning ever since. It has now always the meaning of courtesy and gentleness towards the weak, but before Sir Walter Scott used it it had not this meaning at all. Scott also revived words like raid and foray, his novels, of course, being full of descriptions of fighting on the borders of England and Scotland. It was this same writer who introduced the Scottish word gruesome into the language.

Later in the century another Scotsman, Thomas Carlyle, made many new words which later writers and speakers have used. They are generally rather forcible and not very dignified words, for Carlyle's writings were critical of almost everything and everybody, and he seemed to love rather ugly words, which made the faults he described seem contemptible or ridiculous. It was he who made the words croakery, dry-as-dust, and grumbly, and he introduced also the Scottish word feckless, which describes a person who is a terribly bad manager, careless and disorderly in his affairs, the sort of person whom Carlyle so much despised.

The great writers of the present time seem to be unwilling to make new words. The chief word-makers of to-day are the people who talk a new slang (and of these we shall see something in another chapter), and the scientific writers, who, as they are constantly making new discoveries, have to find words to describe them.

Some of the poets of the present day have used new words and phrases, but they are generally strange words, which no one thinks of using for himself. The poet John Masefield used the word waps and the phrase bee-loud, which is very expressive, but which we cannot imagine passing into ordinary speech. Two poets of the Romantic Movement, Southey and Coleridge, used many new and strange words just in this way, but these, again, never passed into the ordinary speech of English people.

One maker of new words in the nineteenth century must not be forgotten. This was Lewis Carroll, the author of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass." He made many new and rather queer words; but they expressed so well the meaning he gave to them that some of them have become quite common. This writer generally made these curious words out of two others. The word galumph (which is now put as an ordinary word in English dictionaries) he made out of gallop and triumph. It means "to go galloping in triumph." Another of Lewis Carroll's words, chortle, is even more used. It also has the idea of "triumphing," and is generally used to mean "chuckling (either inwardly or outwardly) in triumph." It was probably made out of the words chuckle and snort.

But great writers have not only added new words and phrases to the language by inventing them; sometimes the name of a book itself has taken on a general meaning. Sir Thomas More in the time of Henry VIII. wrote his famous book, "Utopia," to describe a country in which everything was done as it should be. Utopia (which means "Nowhere," More making the word out of two Greek words, ou, "not," and topos, "place") was the name of the ideal state he described, and ever since such imaginary states where all goes well have been described as "Utopias."

Then, again, a scene or place in a great book may be so splendidly described, and interest people so much, that it, too, comes to be used in a general way. People often use the name Vanity Fair to describe a frivolous way of life. But the original Vanity Fair was, of course, one of the places of temptation through which Christian had to pass on his way to the Heavenly City in John Bunyan's famous book, the "Pilgrim's Progress." Another of these places was the Slough of Despond, which is now quite generally used to describe a condition of great discouragement and depression. The adjective Lilliputian, meaning "very small," comes from Lilliput, the land of little people in which Gulliver found himself in Swift's famous book, "Gulliver's Travels."

Then many common expressions are taken from characters in well-known books. We often speak of some one's Man Friday, meaning a right-hand man or general helper; but the original Man Friday was, of course, the savage whom Robinson Crusoe found on his desert island, and who acted afterwards as his servant.

In describing a person as quixotic we do not necessarily think of the original Don Quixote in the novel of the great Spanish writer, Cervantes. Don Quixote was always doing generous but rather foolish things, and the adjective quixotic now describes this sort of action. A quite different character, the Jew in Shakespeare's play, "The Merchant of Venice," has given us the expression "a Shylock." From Dickens's famous character Mrs. Gamp in "Martin Chuzzlewit," who always carried a bulgy umbrella, we get the word gamp, rather a vulgar name for "umbrella."

We speak of "a Sherlock Holmes" when we mean to describe some one who is very quick at finding out things. Sherlock Holmes is the hero of the famous detective stories of Conan Doyle.

It is a very great testimony to the power of a writer when the names of persons or places in his books become in this way part of the English language.

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