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Face it, America: Boston has a way with words

The Hub is a city on a hill of linguistic invention.

"THE GERRY-MANDER," published in the Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812.
"THE GERRY-MANDER," published in the Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812.ELKANAH TISDALE (1771-1835) / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In a 1955 magazine column, British journalist Henry Fairlie referred to those powerful individuals who actually run things, on and off stage, as “the establishment.” Fairlie’s usage suggested he had coined this term. When debunkers provided evidence to the contrary, Fairlie conceded their point. So who did say it first? Fairlie’s search for an answer led him to Boston’s Masonic Temple, where on Dec. 9, 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture titled “The Conservative.” Emerson called the subject of his talk “an upholder of the establishment,” the earliest known use of that term in its contemporary sense.

This is just one of many new words and new uses of old words that turn out to have a Boston connection. “OK” is another one. After years of searching, linguist Allen Walker Read discovered its probable origin in a satirical piece on grammar that ran in The Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839. In that article, editor Charles Gordon Greene used the abbreviation “o.k.” for “oll korrect.” (Abbreviating intentionally misspelled words was all the rage at the time.) By that unlikely means we acquired one of our most versatile and useful words.

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Twenty-seven years before “o.k.” made its debut in print, another Boston newspaper, the Columbian Centinel, was the source of an unusually successful if inadvertent coinage. In 1812 the Centinel’s Federalist editor, Benjamin Russell, posted a map on his wall of tortured congressional districts that had been drawn under the aegis of Democratic-Republican Governor Elbridge Gerry. A visitor to Russell’s office observed that one of these districts resembled a salamander. “Why, let it be named a Gerry-mander!” added a colleague. After this amusing appellation raced around Boston’s streets, the Boston Gazette published a caricature of one redrawn district as a monstrous dragon-salamander. It was captioned “THE GERRY-MANDER. A New Species of Monster Which Appeared in the Essex South District in Jan. 1812.” Nothing better having presented itself, we still call partisan redistricting gerrymandering — which technically should be pronounced with a hard “G,” since that’s how Gerry pronounced his last name.

Yet another Boston newspaper was instrumental in giving birth to a new word meant to taunt. This term was based on the surname of Amelia Bloomer, who in 1851 was one of many feminists to don a new type of attire consisting of a skirt that fell just below the knees above baggy “Turkish trousers” (similar to what today we call harem pants). Although this outfit was designed by Elizabeth Smith Miller, “Miller” was not as much fun to say as “Bloomer.” That’s why, soon after American feminists began to wear Miller’s garb, sneering journalists at the Boston Evening Transcript referred to it as “the Bloomer suit,” “the Bloomer costume,” and just “the Bloomer.” Other publications followed suit, causing Amelia Bloomer’s married name (her maiden one was the unamusing Jenks) to become the go-to word for this type of garment and, eventually, a kind of women’s underwear: bloomers.

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In a process linguists call “semantic bleaching,” words meant to taunt routinely lose their sting and become standard parts of the lexicon. One such word won a coining contest in 1923. This contest was mounted by a teetotaling Quincy banker named Delcevare King, who offered $200 in gold to whoever came up with the best word for “lawless drinkers” who flouted Prohibition. After rejecting suggestions such as “boozocrat” and “boozshevik,” the contest’s three judges, who included a Boston clergyman, chose “scofflaw.” Henry Dale of Andover and Kate Butler from Dorchester each submitted that portmanteau and shared the gold. Research by etymologist Barry Popik has determined how much ridicule was subsequently heaped on their coinage. One newspaper portrayed a Prohibitionist saying “Scofflaw!” to a drinker, who then falls to his knees pleading, “No, no, anything but that.” The word’s allure transcended scorn for lawless imbibers, however. After its original meaning died with Prohibition, the broader application of “scofflaw” to anyone who flouts the law remains part of our vernacular.

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Like ridicule, whimsy is a common source of new terminology. One such term was introduced in the headline of an Aug. 28, 1970, article in this newspaper: “After the Soul of Joe Six-Pack.” Its author, Martin F. Nolan, reported that this way of describing blue-collar men who lived in settings such as Dorchester and Roxbury had been coined by “one of the area’s livelier political informants.” Nolan later told William Safire that the term’s coiner had threatened to sue him if he revealed his name.

Five years later, R.D. Rosen introduced the term “psychobabble” in a 1975 Boston Phoenix book review. He then recycled this neologism in the title of a New Times cover story about that era’s touching and feeling and primal screaming, with all of its attendant jargon. Two years later, Rosen used this 1975 article as the basis for a book he titled “Psychobabble,” which launched the word into everyday parlance. As the tide of popular psychology swelled, it was one we needed — and still need. So does Rosen get credit for coining “psychobabble”? Very seldom. More often than he likes to admit, when others use this word while chatting with him, Rosen can’t resist saying, “You know, I invented that term.”

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Book titles such as Rosen’s are a capital propagator of new words and phrases. They include Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah,” about a fictional mayor of Boston based on James Michael Curley, “Bowling Alone” by Harvard’s Robert Putnam, and “Goops,” the title of a children’s book series written by Boston native Gellett Burgess that was introduced in 1900, seven decades before Gwyneth Paltrow was born. In time, Burgess’s title went generic, as in “Don’t goop on the bug repellent” or “That casserole was too goopy.”

According to Mark Twain, accident is the greatest inventor of all. Something similar could be said of word creation: Happenstance is its secret sauce. Boston web developer Bob Donahue discovered this long after asking members of an online chat group in 1996 if anyone could lend him tapes of “The X-Files.” Donahue promised to return them promptly, after “some massive binge-watching.” Twenty-three years later, writer Steven Poole asked Donahue if he realized that he may have coined “binge-watch” without knowing it. Donahue said he hadn’t. “What a cool revelation!” Donahue told Poole. “To be honest, I have zero recollection as to whether I made up the phrase off the cuff or I was using something I had heard before.”

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Ralph Keyes is the author of “The Hidden History of Coined Words,” his 17th book.