For our next theme we’ll look at some coined words, most them familiar. In one sense, every word was “coined” by the first person to us it, but some coinages have very interesting histories.
Recall that last week’s word Listerine was originally a surgical antiseptic, later a mouthwash. The change came from a hugely-successful advertising campaign, one which illustrates the power of the well-chosen word, today’s coinage.
halitosis - bad breath [from Latin halitus breath + Greek-based suffix -osis]
Listerine began to advertise itself as a cure for “halitosis” in 1921, and kicked the campaign into high gear two years later – perhaps because a competitor was also calling itself a “halitosis” cure. By 1924 the word was on everyone's lips, halitosis-jokes abounded, and one wag noted, "The feller that thought up halitosis as a catchword for bad breath is now riding around in a pink limousine." Says one commentator, “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis." (James Twitchell, Twenty Ads that Shook the World)
Many sources say that the ad-men coined “halitosis”, but in fact it was obscure medical lingo (coined 1874,) which they stumbled upon and eagerly seized. They had already rejected marketing Listerine as a bad breath remedy (they didn’t even know it could be so used), because "bad breath" was an indecent phrase. But when they learned the word "halitosis" they saw that it would be a fine euphemism.
See our board for the full story their deliberation, and for some of their early advertising copy.
The brainstorming over the ad campaign: First-person account by Gerard Lambert, as quoted in Ron Klein and Ray Giles, Turn Your Imagination Into Money
I took them into my brother Marion's office with him and closed the door and told them that we were going to come out of the room with an idea for Listerine. We debated all the possibilities and suddenly dear old Marion suggested "bad breath." We all jumped on him for such an indecent thought. Once more he brought it up and again it was outlawed by us. The third time I shouted over the low partition to Mr. Deacon and asked him to come in.
. . .When he came in I asked him if Listerine was any good for bad breath. He said, "Wait a moment," and produced a tremendous scrapbook from medical journals and opened it on his lap. I stood looking over his shoulder as he read one headline, saying that Listerine was good for halitosis. I stopped him and said, "What is that?" "Why Gerald," he said, "that is the medical term for unpleasant breath." I said, "Wait a minute, say that again." Feasley spoke up and said, "There is something we can hang our hat on." We kicked the old gentleman out of the room totally unaware of what had happened and the four of us immediately began to spark on the idea.
Here is some of the early advertising copy:
Interesting when you think of some of the conditions they talk about now on our ads. How times change!
Wouldn't they be shocked by the unpleasant side effects listed in the disclaimers at the close of ads for prescription meds!
blurb - a short promotional description of a book, film, or other product
I never hope to see one
But I can tell you anyhow
I'd rather see than be one.
His publisher reported, some decades later, how that word was sprung upon the world at large:
H.L. Mencken explains how he came to coin today’s word.
ecdysiast – a stripper-tease artist; a stripper
coined by 1940
[ecdysis –zoology: the process of shedding the old skin (in snakes, etc.)]
"Gypsy and Me" strips bare the life of what it meant to be the legendary ecdysiast's son …
– Jewish Exponent, Mar. 22, 2007
… new Alabama football coach Mike Price getting the ax for his misadventures with the Pensacola ecdysiast community.
– Salon, June 12, 2003
cromulent – excellent; perfectly acceptable
– Charlotte Observer, Apr. 10, 2006
Edna Krabappel: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.
Ms. Hoover: I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word.
[and later:] Skinner: Yes, he's embiggened that role with his cromulent performance.
Hoping some of you have some better sources than I. Here is all I could turn up in a search for the derivation of a term which has been ubiquitous at engineering firms, in government, and elsewhere for 30+ years: bean counter. Originally a term for accountants, it refers in the narrow sense to those in the profession of minding the company's (or the client's) money, and has come to imply a person who focuses on practical detail to the exclusion of the bigger picture.
My question is 'why beans?' Found nothing definitive, but it would appear that 'beans' referred to money back in the hungry 1930's, along with 'dough', 'bread', and 'lettuce.'
I use this word every time someone says embiggens, which my generation actually use fairly often, due to our enjoyment of the Simpsons.
Evan Morris has an article on "Bean Counters" on his Word Detective site.
Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
Necessity can be the mother of linguistic invention. Two examples:
1. When two sisters raised dogs, and the animals presented them with the results of a romantic interlude between the two breeds, what would they call the pups? The sisters created an in-the-family term by blending the breed names. A rather ordinary family incident, but since the sisters are prominent ladies, the blended name has become known outside the family. Thus, Queen Elizabeth’s corgis and Princess Margaret’s dachshunds have given us as dorgies.
2. T. H. Huxley explained how he came to coin the term agnostic – one believes that nothing can be known concerning the existence of God.
Today’s word was coined in a 1923 contest sponsored by an ardent Prohibitionist, Mr. Delcevare King of Quincy, Massachusetts (Harvard 1895). He offered a $200 prize for a word to describe “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor”, and received over 25,000 words.
The authorities thought the word was a flash-in-the-pan. Within months the new-words editor Funk & Wagnalls (Dr. Frank H. Vizetelly) commented that the term, "widely publicized several months ago as the term applied to those who violate the prohibition laws, is fast fading." Moral: don’t trust the authorities! But the winning entry has changed its meaning.
scofflaw – a contemptuous violator of laws, esp. of laws deemed silly or trivial
Tidbit: two entrants submitted the winning word, and the OED and many other sources identify them as Miss Kate L. Butler and “Henry Irving Dale.” But many contemporary accounts give the gentleman’s name as “Henry Irving Shaw,” and that view was taken by as high an authority as Time Magazine (Jan. 16, 1956).