The Hidden History of Coined Words by Ralph Keyes – Review

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By Sandra Callard

This large and learned book follows how the introduction of new, previously unknown, words into the English language was attempted and whether those words were accepted by the populace at large, or whether they fell by the wayside.

I am aware that the author is an accepted authority on language, particularly the English language, and that fact is superbly demonstrated in this new publication. Neologism is the word we are searching for here, meaning new words introduced into mainstream language, and Keyes’ book is full of them. I never knew there were so many, but the mention of certain ones did bring back memories of when l first heard them, and duly accepted them.

The Hidden History of Coined Words is cleverly and humorously written and well researched by a superb author who has the intelligence to make the potentially difficult subject matter accessible and interesting to just about anyone. It is, in fact, very addictive and offers surprises on every page.

hidden history of coined words book review coverAs an American, Keyes naturally highlights many new American words that have never been adopted by the English, but his book does also contain a hefty slice of internationally known words that have found their way into British usage; impressionism, bureaucratic and silhouette being some which were happily adopted.

“Wonderful and informative”

Two terrific word-makers were Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. Churchill is know to have first highlighted the words ‘Iron Curtain’ in regard to Russia, and his new and successful coinage attempt may have been based on the fact that he was aware of theatres using a metal curtain as a safety device against fire, whilst Roosevelt inadvertently provided inspiration for the name of Teddy Bear for the children’s soft toy, when he refused, on a hunt, to shoot a captured bear and ordered its release.

There is a section regarding new immigrants to the American colonies and how they invented words for the new things they found there, particularly animals. Bobcat and catfish were newly invented words by the settlers, as were rattlesnake, hillside and frostbite, all being words which represented the visual aspect of their new world, many of which were eventually adopted back home in England.

There is a delightful chapter which makes fun of some of the weird words which are, for no apparent reason, still appearing in English dictionaries, and must be amongst the most sought after words for clarification therein. How about opprobrium, legerdemain, perspicacious and encomium for starters?

This is a fascinating book that offers an entertaining read for anyone with a love of words. It is lengthy but clear and precise. Even the notes are 78 pages long, the index covers 21 pages, and the bibliography itself earns ten pages, all adding clarity to the foregoing information.

Here is a book to be read at intervals, refreshed occasionally by the drink that cheers, and is in itself a wonderful and informative publication. Ralph Keyes is a superb and dedicated author who has produced one of the most diversely surprising and unusually entertaining books I have ever read.

‘The Hidden History of Coined Words’ by Ralph Keyes is published by Oxford University Press


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