Sorry, Shakespeare; you're not No. 1. Though the playwright receives endless adulation for his artistic contributions, including the many new words and phrases he is believed to have coined, there’s another bard who’s got him beat on that front: John Milton. The author best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost has more neologisms attributed to him than any other writer, even William Shakespeare himself.
To be fair to modern authors, Milton was writing in an age when the English language was newer and more fluid; authors such as Milton and Shakespeare were not alone in simply inventing terms to fill perceived gaps in the language. Whereas a contemporary author would typically need to work in the realm of sci-fi or fantasy to justify creating a new vocabulary, in the 17th century the language was less rigid.
Yet Milton’s authorisms were not arbitrary. He worked with the existing, rich language to extrapolate new words. He crafted new words from Latin roots, added prefixes such as “un-” and translated words into different parts of speech, creating nouns and adjectives out of verbs. He also imbued existing words with new meanings, some of which have proven enduring. He introduced words and senses in his poetry, dramatic works, and polemics such as Areopagitica, which minted nearly 80 new words and meanings in its defense of press freedom. It’s true, some of the 600-plus words he’s believed to have minted don’t survive today, but many have become vital parts of our everyday speech.
Dec. 9 is the seminal poet, polemicist and scholar’s 406th birthday, and in honor of his special day, we’d like to celebrate his unparalleled linguistic genius. Here are 11 of the coolest, most useful and most commonly used words originally coined by Milton:
pandemonium: Used today to refer to a state of utter chaos and uproar, Milton created this term, which roughly translates to “all demons,” to name the capital of hell in his epic Paradise Lost.
lovelorn: Forsaken by one’s lover. Milton used it to describe a nightingale in his work Comus.
unoriginal: Even the word unoriginal was once original; Milton was the first to use it. It appears in Paradise Lost in the line “unoriginal Night and Chaos wild,” and has been interpreted there to mean both its current meaning and primeval, without origin.
earthshaking: Used as an epithet for the god Neptune in Comus, it typically means extremely momentous.
space: Milton is believed to be the first to have used this word to refer to “outer space,” paving the way for space travel, space probes, "2001: A Space Odyssey" and more.
enjoyable: We use this word to describe pleasant experiences all the time, thanks to Milton.
fragrance: A scent, usually a pleasant one.
sensuous: Pleasing to the senses, not the intellect. Milton is believed to have coined the word to make a distinction from sensual, which typically refers more directly to sexual pleasures.
debauchery: This refers to sensual overindulgence or hedonism.
terrific: We now use terrific to mean great or awesome, but Milton originally used it to mean something much more like terrifying, in describing the creation of snakes in Paradise Lost -- it was derived from the same Latin root.
goosery: Alas, this one hasn't become commonly used. Milton used it to mean silliness (befitting a goose). In his pamphlet "Apology for Smectymnuus," he critiqued "finicall goosery of your neat Sermon-actor."