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On rare and lucky days, a column idea arrives by snail mail.

A friend sent me a book titled Authorisms, by Paul Dickson, who has written several books on language. It's a cool collection of terms that writers either created or popularized. Such as:

Mole: John Le Carre used this word in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to describe an agent who becomes entrenched in one nation's intelligence service and passes on secrets to the enemy.

I always have to remind myself that this word refers not to the thing on your skin but to that furry creature that burrows for insects.

Others had used the term. British writer Sir Francis Bacon wrote that King Henry VII dispatched moles abroad to send him vital information, but Le Carre's book propelled the word into popular usage.

Quark: James Joyce used "quark" in the non-pellucid Finnegans Wake to describe a bird's cawing.

Several years later, scientist Murray Gell-Mann was looking for a name for subatomic particles. He had started with the spelling "kwork." Then, while riffling through Finnegans Wake, he stumbled on what he thought was the perfect spelling.

This is the first time I've considered the possibility that studying hadrons is easier than comprehending Finnegans Wake.

Ugly American: This was the title of a novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, and the phrase's meaning has changed over time. The writers used it to describe an American diplomat who is idealistic and kind but not physically attractive. He works with other diplomats who insult their host country.

Now, the Ugly American is the guy in a restaurant in another country who orders his food progressively louder, thinking that a waiter who doesn't understand English in a moderate tone will suddenly be able to grasp English at a higher volume.

Stud muffin: Dave Barry came up with this term in a 1986 syndicated newspaper column. A stud muffin is a good-looking man. Barry's take on it includes a touch of mockery:

"In Washington, House and Senate budget conferees agree to call each other by nicknames such as 'Stud Muffin.'"

Slam dunk: I thought "slam dunk" had been around as long as basketball. It hasn't. The dunk shot is made when a player jumps high and deposits the ball right into the hoop. L.A. Lakers announcer Chick Hearn first used "slam dunk" in 1972.

As with many sports terms, it has spread outside that arena. It has come to mean a sure thing.

Robot: Czech writer Karel Capek used a Slovak word for "laborer" to create a term for those who were like humans but not quite human.

He says his brother gave him the idea. Not long after, Isaac Asimov took the word and ran with it, coming up with "robotic" and "robotics." That was a while before Devo and Al Gore came along.

Eyesore: William Shakespeare used this word in The Taming of the Shrew to mean something unpleasing to the eye. This is just one of the many Shakespearean words in the book.

Dickson labels some of the words "nonce," meaning they were used only by the writer for a single purpose and didn't really spread. They're amusing, but if you use them in a conversation you're likely to get blank looks.

P.G. Wodehouse used "plobby" for the noise of a pig eating. Charles Dickens, in Our Mutual Friend, wrote about a smug man named Mr. Podsnap. That self-righteous behavior is called "podsnappery."

Writer James Branch Cabell tried to create a new expletive, "smirt." But it never gained traction. Winston Churchill came up with "terminological inexactitude" as a euphemism for lying.

And poet Ogden Nash tried to push a word for Popeye's favorite vegetable:

So spinach was too spinachy

For Leonardo da Vinaci

I just wanted to give you a taste of the book. I'd recommend it.


The language is filled with redundancies. Always try to think of ways to shorten a phrase. Here are some before-and-after examples:

12 noon. Use noon. The same goes for 12 midnight.

Final conclusion. Try "end."

At this point in time. Now

Very unique. Unique

A total of 12 egg whites. 12 egg whites

In close proximity. Near

In the event of. If

Make a decision. Decide

It was a dark and stormy night. The night was stormy.

A period of one week/a week's time. A week

Advance planning. Planning

All-time record. Record

Completely destroy. Destroy

Sources: Authorisms by Paul Dickson


ActiveStyle on 07/16/2018

Print Headline: He wrote the book on words


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