Even before the internet, people created new words and invented uses for existing ones. You might be surprised to know that many of the words you use on a regular basis were totally made up at one point.
That’s right, much of our modern language didn’t exist more than a few hundred years ago. So who changed it? Who made up all these words and phrases? Let’s take a look at some people who permanently altered the English language.
Shakespeare was the linguistic equivalent of “if you want it done right, do it yourself.” If there wasn’t an existing word for a concept in his play, he made one up. Shakespeare invented over 400 words that we still use to this day, including obscene, gossip, blanket, critic and gloomy.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is someone you’d expect to make up words. Some of them are silly, meaningless words such as zummers and sneedle while others have caught on — like nerd. Yes, that’s a Dr. Seuss word. Dr. Seuss didn’t only invent words, he also contributed to changing the reading education system with his books. He created fun rhymes, characters kids loved and a basis for the phonics system used in schools.
Charles Dickens did make up some words, but he’s better known for his language contortions. Dickens was the 19th-century equivalent of a millennial on the internet. Without Dickens popularizing slang in his novels, we would have lost words such as flummox and devil-may-care. He was also the king of turning common nouns into creative adjectives. We can thank Dickens for descriptors such as angry-eyed, hunger-worn, proud-stomached, fancy-dressed, coffee-imbibing and ginger-beery.
You probably know Mary Ann Evans better by her pen name, George Eliot. Her works featured made-up words, but her words were often derived from existing sources. For example, flop was already in use when she coined the usage “floppy.” Luncheon was in existence when she began to use the more specific “lunch-time.” She commonly expanded the definition of words, such as when she used the word Siberia as a metaphor for a remote, undesirable locale and not the specific geographical location.
As the most modern character on this list, John McWhorter didn’t make up language as much as he influenced how we see and use it. McWhorter is a linguist and professor at Columbia University, and the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” McWhorter often talks about the meaning of language and how English has evolved and changed over the years—as well as how we adapt with it.
Gertrude Stein is known for her experimental poetry and ideas. At the time she was writing, publishers rejected her words as nonsensical while many other writers absorbed and admired them. While her writing can now be treasured as psychological, complex work, one of her greatest contributions to the English language might be in the “salons” she hosted at her Paris apartment during World War I and II. These parties were host to expatriate American and British authors, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson.
It’s hard to narrow the scope of English language influence to a mere few people—it extends far beyond the ones on this list. Language as a whole never stops evolving. It changes according to our needs and practices, and it shows no signs of stopping. Keep reading and writing — there may be people alive today who become as linguistically influential as Shakespeare.