Throughout the years, authors and writers have done their part in growing the English language. In fact, some calculate that Shakespeare alone has contributed over 3000 commonly used phrases and idioms.
Why so many?
First of all, it’s just fun to make up words and, as long as your readers can understand what you’re saying, you can get away with it. Another reason is because we need to keep our writing “fresh.” That means cutting worn, clichéd phrases from our prose and “inventing” new ways to word what we want to say.
Just for fun, I’m going to share a few examples of phrases/idioms and words introduced into our language by some of the most renowned authors.
Dead as a Doornail –
This is one of the many phrases smithed by Shakespeare. A few days ago, Lorna mentioned several idioms often related to death and dying, so this is another idiom to add to that list. The phrase refers to a once-popular carpentry technique called “clenching.” Once a nail was hammered through a piece of wood, the end was bent over to secure it. If someone later worked to reclaim the used nails, those that had been clenched weren’t fit to be re-used, so they were, in fact, “dead,” or, more specifically, “dead as a doornail.” Once Shakespeare wrote the phrase into the lines of Jack Cade of Henry VI, it soon became widespread in colloquial use:
Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.
The Creeps –
We can thank Charles Dickens for this phrase, which pretty much means what it says – “Something that causes fear or revulsion” (dictionary definition). The word “creepy,” had recently been introduced into the language (around 1831), so Dickens took the opportunity to ad lib on that word in this line from David Copperfield:
She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of its occasioning a visitation in her back which she called ‘the creeps’.
Does it make me more of a nerd that I was thrilled to discover the origin of this word is largely attributed to Dr Seuss? A few others have raised their hands, hoping to claim authorship of “nerd,” but it was Seuss who first put it in print, so he gets the glory. Of course, the nerd was among the list of animals young Gerald McGrew planned to include, should he be made zookeeper, in Seuss’s classic tale, If I Ran the Zoo.
And then just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo / And bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, A NERKLE, a NERD, and SEERSUCKER, too!”
Until the mid-1940s, when this word came to mean a spot of light on a RADAR screen, the common meaning for blip was “a sudden brisk blow, a popping sound.” Blip has been attributed to one of my personal favorites among classic authors, Mark Twain, in St. Nicholas.
“. . . a blip in the back and knocked him off.”
How about you? What idioms/words/phrases have YOU coined in your writings? Or, if you haven’t created your own idiom(s), what original, “fresh” descriptive terms have you discovered in books you have read?