The American Scholar: Is There a Word for That? - Ralph Keyes
Soon after they arrived in America, British settlers got busy with an important task: reinventing their language. This called for repurposing old words and coining new ones. Colonists called the plump, smelly rodents they encountered in swamps muske rats. Other forms of wildlife were named katydids, bobcats, catfish, and whippoorwills. To these settlers, sleigh improved on sledge, and the help reflected their values better than servants. “The new circumstances under which we are placed,” observed Thomas Jefferson, “call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”
“Necessity,” he concluded, “obliges us to neologize.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Jefferson is the first person known to have used the term neologize, in an 1813 letter. It is one of 110 words whose earliest use the OED credits to him. Others include indescribable, pedicure, and electioneer.
Once they caught wind of all the new words being coined across the Atlantic, self-appointed guardians of the King’s English were rather cross. When Jefferson used the new word belittle in his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia, a British critic exclaimed, “It may be an elegant [word] in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” Undaunted, the third president proceeded to coin Anglophobia.
Contempt for the New World’s neologisms continued unabated in the old one. Historically, the British have looked upon American word inventions with all the enthusiasm of an art museum curator examining Elvis-on-velvet paintings. In a famous exchange with American lexicographer Noah Webster, an English naval officer named Basil Hall expressed dismay about the many new words he heard while visiting America in the late 1820s. Webster defended the verbal creativity of his countrymen. If a new word proved useful, he asked, why not add it to the vocabulary? “Because there are words enough already,” responded Hall.
. . .