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Home / Columns / Shashi Tharoor’s Word Of The Week: Authorism

Shashi Tharoor’s Word Of The Week: Authorism

Coining a term to denote expressions invented by authors

columns Updated: Oct 25, 2019, 19:36 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
(HT Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

AUTHORISM, noun:a word, phrase or name created by an author, which passes into common usage.

USAGE:The works of Shakespeare include hundreds of authorisms, including words now commonly used but unheard before his time, like “bump,” “hurry,” and “critical”.

Authorism is actually a neologism, a new word coinage. It was invented – or at least first used in this sense -- by the language scholar Paul Dickson for the express purpose of giving a name to his book on words invented by authors, Authorism: Words Wrought by Writers, published in 2014 on the occasion of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. (The word had been used in the past to relate to the state of being a writer, as when Horace Walpole, in the late 18th century, discussed a writer too satisfied with his “authorism”.)

Shakespeare was the uncrowned king of authorisms. His written vocabulary, Dickson tells us, consisted of 17,245 words, many of which he simply made up for his plays. These included terms that are so essential to our everyday conversation -- like “bump,” “road”, “hurry,” “critical” and “bedazzled” – that one wonders how English coped without them before Shakespeare dreamt them up. Scholars have tripped over each other in the effort to count Shakespeare’s authorisms: some put the total at 500, others come up with the extraordinary number of 1,700. Aside from individual words, Shakespeare’s authorisms include famous phrases that have come into common use since his day, like “brave new world,” “all’s well that ends well,” “setting your teeth on edge,” and “being cruel only to be kind”. No wonder George Bernard Shaw created an authorism to describe excessive worship of Shakespeare: bardolatry.

If Shakespeare coined the most authorisms, the poet John Milton offers the most competition, with this tally clocking in at 630 new words, including such familiar words and phrases as “earth-shaking,” “lovelorn,” “fragrance”, “by hook or crook,” and “pandemonium.” Mind you, not everything Milton came up with stood the test of time, or that of necessity: few later generations found much use for many of Milton’s authorisms such as “ensanguined,” “emblazonry” and “horrent”!

The early litterateurs had the opportunity to establish themselves in a language that was still growing. Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and Sir Thomas Moore also are credited with several authorisms each. Chaucer gave the English such essentials as “bagpipe” and “universe’, while Moore contributed “anticipate” and “fact.” Ben Johnson is said to have invented 558 words, John Donne 342. English grew beautifully in their care.

Later writers had to contend with the fact that so many words had already been invented that there was less need for neologisms. Still, Charles Dickens came up with many original terms and phrases, gleaned, it is suggested, from expressions he had heard around the poorer quarters and criminal classes of London. Mark Twain, Dickson tells us, didn’t take credit for any authorisms at all, but did claim that he popularized the language of the Mississippi River and words derived from the Gold Rushes of Nevada and California (for example, “hardpan,” “strike it rich” and “bonanza”). It is said that Twain’s talent for creative usage gave new meanings to existing words -- like “hard-boiled,” which he is credited for turning into a synonym for “tough”.

By the 20th century one would imagine the scope for totally new authorisms declined. The popular American writer Sinclair Lewis tried hard to create authorisms that might stick, but none of his invented words -- from “Kiplingo” for Rudyard’s bombastic prose to “teetotalitarian” for advocates of Prohibition to “philanthrobber” for a robber baron who dabbled in philanthropy—passed into popular usage, let alone endured. George Orwell’s 1984 (a date derived from reversing the last two digits of the year it was written, 1948) takes the prize, though, for imparting chilling new meanings to commonly-used words and combining some ordinary words into sinister new phrases. These ranged from “Big Brother” as a term to describe a totalitarian dictator, to the more specific “doublethink” and “newspeak” which anticipate the “post-truth” and “fake news” of our times.

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