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Authorisms    by Paul Dickson order for
by Paul Dickson
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2014 (2014)

* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Authorisms by Paul Dickson is a book of words and phrases, arranged in alphabetical order, that have been invented or popularized by authors over the years. Some of them are surprisingly old, but many have become so much a part of our present language that finding out how recently they were coined is the surprise. Dickson has given the dates and titles of the works in which they first appeared, as well as the full names and dates of the authors, and as I read through the listings, I became as interested in having my memory prompted by when these authors were writing as I was in the words.

There is an appendix at the end that discusses the neologisms attributed to William Shakespeare. Different sources have claimed such varying numbers for him that the author decided that a separate discussion of these was necessary. Dickson wonders whether Shakespeare's audience could have enjoyed his plays as much as they apparently did if more than a thousand new words were being invented and used in those plays. Because Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 15,000 words and 'the only dictionary of the English language at the time of Shakespeare's death contained a mere 5,080 words,' Dickson believes that many of the new words attributed to him were in common usage at the time he was writing.

The first chapter gives an explanation of how authors have helped to shape the language over the years. 'Writers have long enjoyed their ability to create new words, to neologize - to write, read, and hear - what writer Arthur Plotnik, who has written on the subject of neologism in literature, calls the 'sweet click of coinage' and which he terms one of the rewards of the vocation. Early writers got to hear a lot of those clicks as they helped shape the language, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer, who had a field day being the one to first leave a written record of several thousand words. The many words regarded as his coinages include bed, bagpipe, Martian, and universe.'

Dickson calls dictionaries, especially the Oxford English Dictionary, the 'official gatekeepers' of the English language, but he's not afraid to dispute their information when he finds other evidence of first usage or who was responsible for that usage. He mentions three different words that he has been given credit for and claims that he 'did not create any of these three words and was nothing more than a carrier who took terms I had heard or read elsewhere and used them in print.' This is ironic considering that many authors struggle to bring new words into the language by using them over and over in print and in speech without having those invented words catch on.

I enjoyed reading through the lists of words and finding out where they came from. It was always fun to learn about how a word that I use or hear frequently became part of our language. For instance, I did not know that our familiar advertising on street corners of people wearing sandwich boards was first described by Charles Dickens as 'a piece of human flesh between two slices of paste board' or even that such advertising was done so long ago. Perhaps one passes over such words and phrases without thinking because they are so common today. It's nice that there are books like this one around to enlighten us.

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