Why Writers Should Pay Attention to Slang
Many authors and poets have displayed a talent for sponging up evolving words and phrases they hear in slang and elevating them into a wider existence through the success of their work. They not only created new worlds for us to delve into, but new words, with many of these words taken in by our English dictionary and still commonly used today. Because of this, I will certainly be paying far closer attention to all of the common slang I hear on my local high street and when visiting my teenage nieces, to help me add depth and expression to characters and narrators. Perhaps even, if I’m very lucky, further the English dictionary.
Here are eight writers who are famed for coining many words we use today.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400)
Known as the Father of English literature and widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, Chaucer was the first person to write down the words ‘universe’, ‘approach’, ‘latitude’, ‘galaxy’, ‘horizon’, and ‘vulgar’.
Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)
An English lawyer, saint, social philosopher, statesman, and noted Renaissance humanist, More was also an author. In his writing, which was primarily of socio-political satire, he coined the words ‘atonement’, ‘anticipate’, and ‘utopia’.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
Shakespeare is often held up as a master neologist (a relatively recent or isolated word or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but that has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language) because at least 500 of our words first appear in his work. Some of the words were no-doubt invented by him, but many were plucked from and inspired by the evolving slang and common phrases around him and crafted into his stories, including ‘critic’, ‘swagger’, ‘bump’, luggage’, ‘lonely’, and ‘hint’.
John Milton (1608–1674)
Milton is said to have coined over 600 English words, including ‘fragrance’, ‘sensuous’ and ‘pandemonium’. In his ten-book poem Paradise Lost, Pandemonium (‘Pan’ in Greek means ‘all’ and ‘daimon’ means ‘evil spirit’) was the name he created for the capital city of Hell. When he coined the word ‘sensuous’, John Milton was trying to create an asexual word that brought people back to our five senses, though over time the word has been associated with sex, likely due to its similarity to the word ‘sensual’.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)
Coleridge coined the verb ‘intensify’—meaning ‘to render intense, to give intensity to’—as the known word ‘intense’ was simply not intense enough for what he needed to describe. He also invented the word ‘pessimism’ from the French word ‘pessimisme’.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
Wordsworth coined the word ‘pedestrian’ in 1791, meaning a traveller on foot. The French already had the word ‘pedestre’, and so Wordsworth added on the ‘ian’. This new word caught on and was added to the English dictionary two years later.
Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
It is said that Dickens coined 258 words and phrases—some of which he invented and others slang words he took from the environment around him. Among those words are ‘flummoxed’, ‘rampage’, ‘snobbish’, and ‘boredom’—all four of these examples were found to have been cited a decade or so earlier than Dickens used them, but he propelled the words into common use.
Karel Capek (1890–1938)
The well-known noun ‘robot’ came into English via Czech in the early 1920s. It was coined by Czech author, Karel Čapek and made its first appearance in a 1920 science fiction play called R.U.R., which is short for Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word is from Czech robota meaning ‘forced labour, drudgery’. According to Čapek, it was actually his brother that suggested the invention of the word, based on the Czech variant.
If you find the words you need do not already exist then create new ones, regardless of the genre you’re writing in. Craft your new words from what you hear around you, the slang spoken in your neighbourhood, and from words in other languages that have a similar meaning to what you are looking for.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Shakespeare, although coining hundreds of words and phrases that we use every day, also created hundreds of words that never quite took off. These include ‘virgined’, meaning held securely; ‘crants’, meaning crowns of flowers; and ‘intrenchant’, which meant something that was incapable of being cut.
The Oxford English Dictionary adds around a thousand new words every year. By creating new ones, writers can influence society and might find the new words and phrases they invent wander free and find themselves a place.
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© 2018 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.