Mental Floss

The Quick 10: How 9 Words Were Coined (and how one wasn't)

Stacy Conradt

Do you ever wonder why we say the things we say? I remember philosophizing to my mom once that curse words were silly "“ they're just some letters jumbled together, after all, and we're the ones who decided they were "extra" bad. Yeah "“ she didn't go for it. I still don't know the origins of most of those words, but I can tell you about 10 somewhat less offensive words.

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3. Agnostic. As far as we know, this term was coined in 1876 by Thomas Henry Huxley during a speech he was giving to the Metaphysical Society. Back in the day, "gnosis" was a word often used by church leaders to refer to spiritual knowledge, so Huxley tacked on the "a" to represent skepticism of such.

4. Battery. We're talking the electrical type, not the "assault and battery" type. We have Benjamin Franklin to thank for this one. Ben certainly didn't invent the battery "“ it's been around since ancient times. But he used the word that had previously referred to military weapons to show how much power these little cells packed. We've been using the word ever since, and it sure is easier than saying, "Honey, can you pick up some AAA electrochemical cells at the store? The remote is dead."


6. Cool. Obviously the word has meant "cold" to a lesser degree for quite some time, but we think we know who started using it to denote approval. His name was Lester Young and he was one of the most well-regarded and respected saxophonists of the Jazz Age. Billie Holiday called him "Prez," as in President of all Saxophonists. He also popularized "bread" as a reference to money and liked to say, "I feel a draft" when he felt as if someone was being racist.

7. Robot. We know the word because of a play by Czech writer Karel ÄŒapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which was first published in 1920. The play revolves around a factory that makes robots, but these days we would be more likely to call them androids instead of robots because of their similarity to humans. When ÄŒapek was said to be the creator of the word, he quickly sidestepped the honor and said it was actually his brother, painted and writer Josef ÄŒapek, who actually invented the word. Later, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took it a step further and coined the term "robotics" to mean the study of such mechanical workings.

8. Puke. This is debatable, because although Shakespeare is said to have coined more words in the English language than anyone else (the number is thought to be in the thousands), most scholars will argue that Shakespeare only had the first written instance of these words and would pick them up from spoken slang that he heard. But if you go with the "Shakespeare totally invented all of those words himself" theory, then he invented "puking" when he wrote As You Like It:

And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms."

9. Dinosaur. Dinosaurs themselves have been around for millennia (or at least their remains have been), but the word to describe them wasn't coined until 1842, which paleontologist Richard Owen combined the Greek words for powerful/terrible (deinos) and lizard/reptile (sauros) to come up with "dinosaur."

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Do you know any interesting word origins? I'm a geek for this kind of stuff, so definitely feel free to enlighten us in the comments.