An Interview with Ralph Keyes: Transcript

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Ralph Keyes in March 2021. You can listen to the interview on the main page.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, rules, history, and cool stuff. And today I have a special treat because I have an interview with Ralph Keyes, the author of a fascinating new book that I've been enjoying called “The Hidden History of Coined Words.” It has wonderful stories about, you know, hundreds, maybe a thousand words and where they came from. And it's just a delight. So, Ralph, thank you for being here with me today.

Ralph: Delighted to be with you, Mignon.

Mignon: Yes, I was so excited when I received the book in the mail and started leafing through it, and I just knew immediately it was something I was going to love because there are sort of, you know, multipage stories about the origins of words, but also, you know, quick hits all throughout too. The first one you have to tell me about is the origin of “scientist,” because I used to be a scientist, and I was incredibly surprised when I read that entry in your book.

Ralph: Isn't that fascinating,

Mignon: Yes.

Ralph: In 1833, a group in England, the Royal Association for the Advancement of Science, met and wondered what word could they come up with that would cover all of them. You know, physicists, chemists, geologists, etcetera. And they batted around words like “natur-forschur” is a German word, but it means “nature poker,” and they thought that might…some people might laugh at that one. So that was out. Then they thought about “savans” but that was French, so that wasn't going to work. And they thought of “natural philosopher” was appropriate, but a bit of a mouthful. So then one of their members, the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, a polymath named William Whewell suggested “scientist.” Now, he wasn't serious. He was just kidding. “Scientist,” get it like “atheist” or “journalist” or “tobacconist” or “sciolist,” which meant someone who tried to pretend to know things but didn't. And so everybody got a good laugh out of that: “scientist” ha ha ha. And went on to the next idea. 

Well, that should have been that. But then, Dr. Whewell, (I don't know if he was a doctor or not) William Whewell wrote a book in 1840 where he brought it up again, this time a little more seriously, and he got a lot of blowback. What a terrible word. “Scientist” like, you know, one luminary after another dismissed it as still a bit of a joke, but the public kind of liked it and it caught on and voilá, we still use it today.

Mignon: That's such a surprise, it seems now like such a serious, important word that it never would have occurred to me that it was originally a joke.

Ralph: Nor me, until I read about that meeting of the Royal Association, but that's a common path that words take: they start out as jokes and then become serious words like, what am I thinking about? “Software” was originally just a joke of a word, you know, like an antonym of hardware, you know, poke in the ribs, chuckle “software,” get it? And now, of course, it's standard brand. They're just one word after another that began as a joke but ended up as a serious word.

Mignon: I noticed that, too, as I was reading through it, I think today we think of people who want to coin words and are serious when they propose a new word. And so many of the words in your book came about either accidentally, unintentionally, or a lot of times as a joke or even as an insult. The one the one that was that that surprised me was the paintings, the impressionists, which, you know, we think of as a serious, important group of artists. And and that name…well, why don't you tell the story of where that name came from?

Ralph: Isn't that fascinating? in 1874, for an exhibit was mounted of artists who weren’t, who were considered sort of beyond the pale in Paris, and this included Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Monet; and their paintings were not literal like paintings were supposed to be at the time. They just had dogs and brush strokes and bright colors, lots of light. And a critic, an art critic named Louis Leroy just ridiculed in his review. He said, these are not paintings. They're just impressions. The people who painted them are not artists; they're impressionists. And he thought he was blowing them out of the water with this insult of a word: hahaha, “impressionist.” Well, lo and behold, the artists themselves liked it and began to call themselves impressionists. The school of painting that they were part of became known as Impressionism. And today it's a very respectable and admired word.

Mignon: Right, and it's almost the opposite of the beatniks. That was also put out as not necessarily quite a serious word, but the people, they didn't adopt it. They hated it. Right.

Ralph: Oh, OK, Jack, Jack Kerouac, one of the leading avant garde poets of his time, said that he was part of a beat generation, that they were beats. So then a columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, just in passing, he didn't think of the serious word, just in passing, said, well, these are beatniks. Now, at the time, Sputnik, the satellite, the Russian satellite had just gone up in space. And -nik was kind of a popular suffix, you know, “peacenik,” etc. But so he called them beatniks. They hated it. Then the beatnik, the ones we call beatniks now hated it. One deli in the north, Beach of San Francisco, in response said everyone welcome except Herb Caen. So that that was how that one was received. But.

Mignon: Because he was the one who who coined that phrase, that term, right?

Ralph: Yeah, exactly the column. He was a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he had coined the term “beatnik” and, you know, those he called beatniks just didn't like that term at all. They thought it was degrading and insulting. But it was picked up immediately by the public and we still use that.

Mignon: But it turned out he didn't love it either, right?

Ralph: Herb Caen,

Mignon: Right,

Ralph: No.

Mignon: And I thought, yeah, he didn't like the board either that much.

Ralph: No, he said, I don't. I was just, I was just using that in passing, I didn't mean that to be used to be taken seriously. But, you know, it's very common for people who coined words to then regret it. I call it “coiners remorse.”

Mignon: Hahaha

Ralph: You know, like when Alan Greenspan, for example, the Secretary of the Treasury, said we were in a period of “irrational exuberance” and that got picked right up. It became the title of a book. Well,

Mignon: Hmm.

Ralph: 10 years later, when Terry Gross had him on fresh air, she asked him how he felt about coining that phrase. And Greenspan sighed and said, “I wished I hadn’t." And that's not uncommon at all that people end up … Thomas Kuhn, for example, who coined “paradigm shift,” “paradigm” and “paradigm shift" for the way schools of thinking change over time, got picked up all over the place. There's even a band called Paradigm Shift now, and he was just horrified and wished, said he wished he'd used “examplar” instead of “paradigm.” Maybe it wouldn't have been so misused. But you know, who wants to talk about exemplars? And would we have an “exemplar shift” if Dr. Kuhn had to use that term instead of “paradigm”?

Mignon: Right. One thing that you mentioned that made a lot of sense is if a word is fun to say or sounds nice, it's much more likely to become a hit. I think it was “mugwumps.” Was was that one of them?

Ralph: Yeah, “mugwump” Now “mugwump,” I just love that word. Why can't why isn't it still in the news? Maybe it'll get revived after this conversation. So Mugwump that began as an Indian word, Algonquian for “a very important figure,” and they were called “mugqomps.” So the settlers picked it up and began to call their own leaders mugqomps. And then over time, in 1884, during the presidential race, a bunch of Republicans, excuse me, bolted from their party to support the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland. And the New York Sun newspaper taunted them as little mugwumps. Mugwumps. So “mugwumps” got picked right up, including by the mugwumps themselves, to mean a political outlier. Somebody who is independent, who goes their own way, is a mugwump. And that lasted for decades, I think, a lot, because it was just so much fun to say. Any…

Mignon: Right.

Ralph: A coin word that's fun to say has has a lot better chance of of being adopted and becoming a permanent part of the lexicon than one that's boring to say.

Mignon: Yeah, so you mentioned the popularising of words, so I think we'll we'll take a quick break for our sponsor here. And then when we come back, we'll talk about some people who were extraordinary popularizers of populariser, popularizers of words. We'll be right back. OK, and then I'll drop an ad in here and see.


Mignon: So we're back. So we've talked about some of the interesting words in particular in the book. But you also have a section on people who just coined an extraordinary number of words or at least popularized them. And I think everyone thinks of Shakespeare, but there are many others. So Milton was one of them. Can you talk about how prolific Milton was at creating words, but also making some more popular?

Ralph: Sure, John Milton, the poet was prolific in coining words. He coined hundreds and hundreds of them. It's not always clear when a word is original. So we can't put a number, a specific number, but it was well into the hundreds. One of the favorite word coiners among at etymologists, people who take a serious interest in coined words. Just a few examples: “Advantage,” “complacency,” “damp," “dismissive,” “fragrance," “jubilant,” “obtrusive,” “terrific.” The list goes on and on. He was one of the major contributors of new words to the English language, beloved among etymologists, just for that reason.

Mignon: And how how how do they determine whether he created a word or just maybe heard a word on the street and used it and then made it more popular?

Ralph: You know, it's almost impossible to tell because that happens all the time, that someone will hear a word on the street and then plunk it into a piece of writing or use it in their own conversation and then get credit for it. So I'm sure that happened with Milton. 

But it's also scholars have determined in one case after another how he was able to put suffixes on words or prefixes. You know, he would take the word “impassive,” for example, and just put a…he would take the word “passive,” excuse me, and put an “im-” in front and get in “impassive.” 

He would take “dimension,” and he would put “-less” at the end and get “dimensionless.” And this is just, he was just incredibly inventive. One time he got a twofer. He coined “obtrusive.” OK. then he doubled up with “unobtrusive.” So he got

Mignon: Nice.

Ralph: Two words out of one coinage.

Mignon: Dickens is another one we think of. I tend to think of him most, well, mostly for his character names, his his wonderful character names, but he also seems to have invented, you know, hundreds, if not a thousand words in the English language.

Ralph: Yes. OK, so the eponyms “Pecksniffian,” “Scroogeish,”  “Micawberesque,” we all know about those, but people who have studied original use of words by Dickens have found hundreds of them. So for example, he just …and he in a very simple way, he added “-less” to “care” for careless. He added

Mignon: Hmm.

Ralph: “Less” to “penny” for “penniless.” But then he went on to do kind of silly things like “fireworkless” or “conversationless” “theaterless” not so good. But then the other ones that I mentioned earlier, we still use: “penniless,” and “careless," etc. very common words.

Mignon: Yeah, I guess if you want to play with words and maybe have a chance of of coining your own, look at those prefixes and suffixes and start there, seems

Ralph: Right.

Mignon: Like the training wheels for creating words.

Ralph: Yeah, he gave us “unchangeable,” “unapproachable,” “unholy,” and then by adding “-al” to, for example, “arrive,” he got “arrival.”

Mignon: Hmm.

Ralph: Adding “-al” to “aspiration,” he got “aspirational.”

Mignon: That's wonderful. Well, before we go, though, I was going through the book; it's just a tour de force. I mean, the number of words in here, the people, did this take you three decades to write? I mean, how did how did this book come about? I want to hear about your research.

Ralph: Thank you. Thank you for asking, Mignon, this book, this book about did me in. I submitted my proposal for…I had written an article in 2013 for the American Scholar on coined words, and then I expanded that into a book idea, submitted a proposal that was accepted in 2015. So here we are six years later, the book's finally out and I've about had it. I'm about done. And it was a very, very challenging book to write. Just the kind of research it took, confirming things. Etymologists are very scrutinizing of attempts to say what words are original and what aren't. So I tried to dot all my I's and cross all my T’s and mind my etymological P's and Q's, which incidentally, is a phrase nobody's ever been able to figure out where it came from, “P’s and Q’s."

Mignon: I know! It’s one of my favorites.

Ralph: Oh, isn't it a great phrase? but who...

Mignon: Yeah.

Ralph: Knows where it came from. But anyway,

Ralph: So it took me quite some time to write, to do that research, to write it, to rewrite it. I'm kind of a fussy writer, and I rewrite 10, 20, 30, 40 drafts typically for my books.

Mignon: Good heavens. Well, I believe it, because it came together so nicely, and it looks like you've written about 20 books. Is book writing essentially your full time job or you have a professorship somewhere too. Tell us a little bit more about you.

Ralph: It's basically all I've ever done, that and articles and essays since 19… published my first book in 1973, “We the Lonely People” and then followed that with “Is There Life After High School?” about high school memories in 1976, which eventually became a Broadway musical that still gets produced here in other countries.

Mignon: How fun!

Ralph: My best known book is probably “The Courage to Write” about how to deal with writing fears. But it's total, 17 books total, and it's basically all I've ever done. I've done a little teaching, I do some speaking, but book writing is basically my career.

Mignon: Are you working on something new right now?

Ralph: No.

Mignon: I know that feeling.

Ralph: Yes, exactly. So.

Mignon: Well, this… you should spend some more time promoting this because it is a treasure, and I think people are going to love it. It's called “The Hidden History of Coined Words” by Ralph Keyes. That's K-E-Y-E-S. Thank you so much for being here with me today.

Ralph: Thank you, Mignon. It’s been a pleasure.