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Top 10 Made Up Words

Top 10* Made Up Words

Sarah Palin confusing refudiate for repudiate and then calling it a new word got me thinking about other made up words. Refudiate may not have much staying power, but most of the following 10 words (listed in order of acceptability) are likely to be with us for a while.

10. Irregardless
9. Misunderestimate
8. Frindle
7. Chillax
6. Sniglet
5. Ginormous
4. Truthiness
3. Cromulent
2. Locavore
1. Frugal

10. Irregardless
Source: The Confused Masses
Year: At least 1874**
OK to Use? No

Thought to be a combination of irrespective and regardless, this word is like fingernails on a chalkboard to language sticklers and can induce the Internet equivalent of a pitchfork-armed mob. My only article to make the front page of Digg was one in which I defended irregardless’s status as a word (a bad, bad word you shouldn’t use) and was flamed to kingdom come.

A dictionary usage note suggests that the word may have gained a foothold in English when it was used in a 1930’s radio comedy show.

Earliest Known Quotation (1874): “B. Gosse, Esq., of London, who gave indiscriminately to every object irregardless of its worthiness and and could not bear to destroy anything.”

[Note added 7/22/2010, 8:08 PM: Ben Zimmer informs me that there is an earlier known reference for irregardless that puts its first use in 1795.]

9. Misunderestimate
Source: George W. Bush
Year: 2000
OK to Use? No

Poor President Bush. Anyone who speaks in public is going to make errors, but his errors were funny, which means that much like poor Spooner (the namesake of Spoonerisms), he’ll forever be remembered for his illiterate-sounding utterances such as misunderestimate (known as Bushisms).

Earliest Known Quotation (2000): “They misunderestimated me.”

8. Frindle
Source: The Andrew Clements children’s book Frindle.
Year: 1996
OK to Use? No, most people won’t know what you mean

Frindle means pen. In the story, a fifth grader named Nick gets all the students in his school to  call their pens frindles.

Earliest Known Quotation (1996): “And that’s when the third thing happened. Nick didn’t say ‘pen.’ Instead, he said, ‘Here’s your . . . frindle.”

7. Chillax
Source: Teen culture
Year: At least 1996
OK to Use: Only if you want to sound like a dude

Chillax is a combination of chill and relax. Although top Internet search results say chillax originated with the 2003 film Final Destination 2, the word actually shows up on the Internet in personal ads going as far back as January 1996 and is included in a musician’s website that includes an Ebonics dictionary with a Google date stamp of February 2, 1996. Did anyone really think Hollywood could have created the word on their own?

Earliest Known Quotation (film, Final Destination 2, 2003, Spoken by an unnamed kid smoking at a gas pump.) “Chillax, biatch.”
Earliest Known Quotation (print, The American Spectator, Volume 36, 2003): “He told me I was overreacting and to ‘chillax.’”

6. Sniglet
Source: Rich Hall, Not Necessarily the News
Year: 1983
OK to Use: Yes, although the cultural reference is now stale and young people may not know what you mean.

Rich Hall worked on the television show Not Necessarily the News in which he produced a popular segment called “Sniglets” about words that don’t appear in the dictionary, but should. The “Sniglets” segment was based on work by Douglas Adams and Johnny Lloyd that was created for, but never used in, the British predecessor of Not Necessarily the News called Not the Nine O’Clock News. Adams and Lloyd’s sniglets were used in a book based on the show titled The Meaning of Liff. Hall’s book, Sniglets, came out in 1984, and was illustrated by Arnie Ten, who illustrated my first two books.

Originating Quotation: Unknown

5. Ginormous
Source: Military Slang
Year: At least 1948
OK to Use: Yes, but only in informal settings. It’s a bit unnecessary and is best used jokingly, at least by adults

A blend of gigantic and enormous, ginormous was added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in 2007, but this word has been around longer than you may think. It first turned up in a British dictionary of military “Forces’ Slang” in 1948.

Earliest Known Print Quotation (outside of dictionaries, 1949): “At about this time Flo and Charles Dillingham had combined their resources to take over a new theater and and to put on a ginormous production called Miss 1916, starring Marie Dressler and Leon Errol.”

4. Truthiness
Source: Stephen Colbert (although there is one earlier use)
Year: 1824 & 2005
OK to Use? Yes, particularly when being ironic.

Truthiness is most commonly seen on blogs but also appears in print. For example, a Mother Jones writer recently used truthiness in an article about an image of Christ appearing on a water park flag: “[The owner] has enlisted the aid of a Catholic parish priest … to verify the, um, truthiness of the Lord’s linen likeness.”

Earliest Known Quotation (1824, J. J. Gurney): “Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness.”

Earliest Modern Source (2005, October 17, The Colbert Report, “The Wørd” segment)

[Note added 7/22/2010, 8:16 PM: More information on the earliest use of truthiness, also courtesy of Ben Zimmer]

3. Cromulent
Source: The Simpsons, Season 7, Episode 16, “Lisa the Iconoclast”
Year: 1996
OK to Use? Yes, in informal situations or around people who are cool

Cromulent means valid or acceptable. Writers for The Simpsons created the word (along with another candidate for this list, embiggens) when they were asked to make up two words that sounded real.

The Springfield town motto is “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” A schoolteacher says she never heard the word embiggens until she moved to Springfield. Another teacher replies, “I don’t know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

Earliest Known Quotation (1996): “I don’t know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

2. Locavore
Source: Jessica Prentice, author of Chelsea Green
Year: 2005
OK to Use? Yes

A locavore is a person who tries to eat food grown or raised locally. Jessica Prentice invented the word in a couple of hours when pressed by a San Francisco Chronicle writer to come up with a catchy  name for her project. She also considered localvore, but thought locavore was easier to say and more nuanced. Oxford University Press chose locavore as its word of the year for 2007. Because it describes something new, this word has staying power.

Earliest Known Quotation (2005): “Calling themselves the Locavores, the women — Lia McKinney, Jessica Prentice, Dede Sampson and Sage Van Wing — are passionate about eating locally and have devised a way to show others how to do that, too.”

1. Frugal
Source: Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene 1, Mistress Page
Year: 1598
OK to Use? Yes

Every word was made up by someone. Shakespeare is said to have made up more than 10,000 words. Because it represents the zeitgeist, Frugal is my choice to represent Shakespeare’s overall greatness as a neologist.

Earliest Known Quotation (1598): “I was then Frugall of my mirth.”

*Yup. it’s just my opinion.
** This date is wildly exciting, at least to me. The quotation I found in Google Books is older than the original quotation listed in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1912. I found an origin 38 years older than the OED’s! I bet this is happening a lot now that it’s so easy to search old books.

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15 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. I first used the word “chillax” accidently with my brother when we were fighting about 1992. Mr brother is a professor and I am high school teacher. I used it accidently as I often contract two words accidently when I am speaking with anger/passion. Friends of ours used the word to irritate me after that and so it caught on….much to my annoyance. Nowadays I am happy to see it being used in todays pop culture ! lol
    I swear on my life that my first usage was original at least to me and pre-dates any other claims I have seen for this word.

    1. Brian on April 6th, 2011 at 9:35 PM
  2. According to the Wiktionary article on refudiate, http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/refudiate, it is not the first time.

    It lists refudiate as being used in reports and books in 1980, 1984, 1987, 1988, and 2010 (David Segal).

    2. Peter Mortensen on July 26th, 2010 at 4:11 AM
  3. This is a great list! From Shakespeare to The Simpsons. If we want to combine the Shakespeare conspiracy theories with the over 10,000 words he allegedly created, then we can blame him for any words we don’t like. ;-)

    3. Fred F on July 23rd, 2010 at 9:52 AM
  4. I sometimes use “automagically” in my column. I don’t know who made it up. “Your antivirus program will automagically get updates. You don’t have to do anything.”

    4. catester on July 22nd, 2010 at 10:46 PM
  5. I really enjoyed reading these — some made me laugh out loud. Thanks for sharing.

    5. Beverly Huckaba on July 22nd, 2010 at 7:37 PM
  6. Godfrey – You win!

    6. Jenny on July 22nd, 2010 at 6:57 PM
  7. I think the OED has a place on the website for reporting antedatings (uses of a word earlier than what they have cited in the entry for that word). I’m sure they’d be delighted to include yours in the dictionary.

    7. Elizabeth on July 22nd, 2010 at 6:09 PM
  8. I think Sarah’s refudiate is a combination of refute and repudiate.

    8. Carol on July 22nd, 2010 at 5:57 PM
  9. Is this correct usage of the words?
    Irregardless of the misunderestimated word, frindle, we can’t chillax about this sniglet because it has ginormous controversy over its truthiness. Cromulent words are essential for any locavore with a frugal appetite for vocabulary!

    9. godfrey on July 22nd, 2010 at 5:44 PM
  10. Love this article and all the etymologies. I want more!
    Maybe you want to know about two typos, though?
    In the paragraph explaining ‘irregardless,’ ‘defending’ should be ‘defended.’ And one of your ‘sniglets’ is a ‘singlet.’

    10. WryRy on July 22nd, 2010 at 4:40 PM
  11. I love that frindle is included. My fifth grade students read that book last school year. Fun!

    11. Mary on July 22nd, 2010 at 4:04 PM
  12. I am so amused to read this as I just used “chillax” in my most recent blog post. Cool.

    http://bit.ly/adKhNt

    12. P Shane McAfee on July 22nd, 2010 at 4:01 PM
  13. I had a singles pastor who regularly mispronounced words. He’d say Calderado for Colorado, and “flustrated,” among other mangled words. I think “ginormous” is cute, but I wouldn’t use it in serious prose. Thank you for a great article.

    ~ VT

    13. Victor Travison on July 22nd, 2010 at 4:00 PM
  14. “Misunderestimate” was used before 200 according to http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/misunderestimate. Nice post!

    14. Carl Gene Fordham on July 22nd, 2010 at 3:52 PM
  15. If we’re being picky, aren’t all words made up?

    Nice list anyway ;)

    15. Olly on July 22nd, 2010 at 3:37 PM