Words That Aren't Words

Enjoy this excerpt from one of my favorite new books: Bad English by Ammon Shea.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #431

Ammon Shea Bad English Book Cover.


One of the common myths about how language works is that if there is a seeming need for a word, and if one simply thinks long and hard about it and then comes up with a truly fine candidate, then this neologism will stand a decent chance of being adopted into the language. This almost never happens, outside of the realm of scientific terminology (which is obviously a domain populated by sadists with no regard for the language). A rare exception is scofflaw, a word with what may be the humblest possible origin story: It was created in order to win a prize in a newspaper contest.

In 1924, a fervent prohibitionist named Delcevare King felt that there was a hole in the heart of the English language, as he saw no word that would adequately describe those who failed to observe the Eighteenth Amendment (which banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages). So King ran a contest, with the extravagant sum of $200 offered to whoever came up with the best name for a person who in any way failed to abide by the terms of this amendment. Some twenty-five thousand would-be word creators wrote in with suggestions, including sliquor, patrinot, and boozshevik.

The winning entry was scofflaw, a rather simplistic blend of two older English words, and it was submitted independently by two people, Henry Dale and Kate Butler. The word quickly took hold, due in large part to the publicity surrounding the contest, which was promoted heavily by the Boston Globe.

King tried to continue his role of eminence grise of language, holding additional contests on such subjects as a new slogan for the National Recovery Association. The winner of this contest (awarded the slightly less munificent sum of $10) was “N.R.A. Saves Us,” which obviously failed to replicate the success of scofflaw. King had had his moment of glory in the furthering of the English language and was forever associated with the word; so much so that when his father, Theophilus King, died in 1935, the obituary announced among his accomplishments that he was the father of the man who gave the world scofflaw.

There were many other such contests in the twentieth century, few of which had any success (skycap, which was created to come up with a new word for porter, was one exception). The Eveready company, makers of flashlights, tried to extend their manufacturing rate to language in 1917, when they offered the astonishing prize of $3,000 to whoever could come up with a better word for flashlight. The results of this contest were noteworthy only insofar as Eveready was generous enough to pay the full prize amount to all four of the contestants who sent in the winning word. That word was day-lo. It worked out about as well as sliquor and boozshevik did. Such failed attempts served only to show how difficult it can be to try to force a new word into language.

Sometimes the urge is not to create a new word to describe a thing for which there is no existing word, but instead to replace a word that is disliked. This has happened more than once for the word jazz. The same year that the contest was held to find scofflaw, a bandleader named Meyer Davis decided that there was a need to replace jazz, which he thought had lost its expressiveness. Approximately seven hundred thousand people sent in suggestions in an attempt to win the $100 prize, which was split between two people who sent in the same word. That word, which has utterly failed in its intended goal of replacing jazz, was synco-pep.

Jazz was subjected to a recall campaign again in 1949, when DownBeat magazine called for submissions to replace it, offering $1,000. In the face of stiff competition from words such as blip and jarb, the word crewcut was chosen and went on to have no effect whatsoever on the language.

The success of scofflaw notwithstanding, it remains true that it is exceedingly unlikely that you, or anyone you know, will ever be able to create a word and see it have widespread use; that just isn’t how language works. Although we do frequently see words introduced into language  (such as blog, staycation, and innumerable political scandals ending with the suffix -gate), such words usually do not survive for long and are generally not the result of an individual spontaneously deciding to create a word. Even scofflaw has not been entirely successful as it began to change its meaning shortly after it was adopted by large numbers of English speakers. The original meaning of “one who does not pay attention to the Eighteenth Amendment” is now entirely obsolete; the word is now used to mean “one who fails to pay his parking tickets; a person who violates the law.” What better demonstration of the English language’s ineluctable penchant for change: Even when we create a specific word for a specific purpose, it refuses to be bound by its origins.

That is not to say that words do not enter the language by invention; they do, and frequently so. Inventive writers, especially those who are widely read, have had notable success in coming up with words that then become part of our language. Lewis Carroll was responsible for chortle and bandersnatch, found first in Through the Looking Glass. Shakespeare invented large numbers of words, although not really as many as he was credited with. James Joyce had numerous coinages (few of which, admittedly have passed beyond the furrowed brows of graduate students), as have Gelett Burgess (goop, blurb) and Winston Churchill (credited with seaplane and undefendable).

But these were well-known or renowned authors, and we tend to give wide latitude to such creatures. When new words of less illustrious parentage come around, they typically are met far less welcomingly. If you have pinned your hopes on being long remembered for having contributed some sparkling gem that enriches the language, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

The words in this chapter have all been introduced, or reintroduced, to the English language in the last several hundred years. All of them were at some point widely scorned; they have seen varying degrees of acceptance since their introduction. The fact that these words, each of which has been labeled at some point “not a word,’ remain in use illustrates that prognosticating about the future of our language is often a fool’s game.

Reprinted from Bad English by Ammon Shea presented by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2014 by Ammon Shea.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.