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Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

The Hidden History of Coined Words

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Wednesday, July 14, 2021 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1K0117
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$20 - Member
$25 - Non-Member

Ralph Keyes

“Banana republic”, “butterfingers”, “factoid”, “beatnik.”

Successful word-coinages—those that stay in currency for a good long time—tend to conceal their beginnings. We take them at face value and rarely know when and where they were first minted. In an engaging dive into language, author Ralph Keyes explores the etymological underworld of terms and expressions and uncovers plenty of hidden gems.

He finds that successful neologisms are as likely to be created by chance as by design. A remarkable number of new words were coined whimsically, originally intended to troll or taunt. “Knickers,” for example, resulted from a hoax and “Big Bang” from an insult. Casual wisecracking produced “software,” “crowdsource,” and “blog.” More than a few resulted from happy accidents such as typos, mistranslations, and mishearings (“bigly” and “buttonhole”), or from being taken entirely out of context (“robotics”).

Neologizers (a Thomas Jefferson coinage) include not just scholars and writers but cartoonists, columnists, and children's book authors. “Wimp” originated with a book series, as did “goop,” and “nerd” comes from a story by Dr. Seuss. The lively program will appeal to word nerds, of course, as well as history buffs, trivia contesters, and anyone who loves the immersive power of language.

Keyes is the author of 17 books, one of which, The Post-Truth Era, provided Oxford Dictionaries with the primary source of their 2016 Word of the Year, “post-truth.” His newest, The Hidden History of Coined Words (Oxford University Press), is available for sale.

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This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.