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VIRTUAL EVENT: BOOK TALK: The Hidden History of Coined Words

Wednesday, April 7, 2021 - 6:00pm to 7:00pm
Registration is requested
Members and VESP holders: Free | Visitors: $5

Book Talk: The Hidden History of Coined Words

Ralph Keyes

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 when and where they were first minted. Engaging, illuminating, and authoritative, Ralph Keyes's The Hidden History of Coined Words explores the etymological underworld of terms and expressions, and uncovers plenty of hidden gems. It is sure to appeal not just to word mavens, but to history buffs, trivia contesters, and anyone who loves the immersive power of language.

He also finds some fascinating patterns, such as 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; big bang from an insult. More than a few resulted from happy accidents—such as typos, mistranslations, and mishearing (bigly and buttonhole)—or from being taken entirely out of context (robotics). Neologizers (a Thomas Jefferson coinage) include not just scholars and writers but also cartoonists, columnists, children's book authors. What’s more, coinages are often contested, controversy swirling around such terms as gonzo, mojo, and booty call. Keyes considers all contenders, while also leading us through the fray between new word partisans and those who resist them strenuously. He concludes with advice about how to make your own successful coinage.

Ralph Keyes is the author of several books, including The Post-Truth Era, cited by Oxford Dictionaries as a primary source for their 2016 "Word of the Year." Keyes has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, ABC World News Tonight, and 20/20 (twice). He has been interviewed on All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, On the Media, and Fresh Air, and has written for Esquire, GQ, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Newsweek, Parade, Sports Illustrated, Harper's, and The American Scholar, where he also wrote a column on language. He now lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Muriel.

Help support the author and independent bookstores. 

PURCHASE The Hidden History of Coined Words from our partner, Harvard Book Store.


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Auto-generated captions are available for most virtual programs. To request live captioning or other accommodations, please contact Hannah Weisman at or 617-720-7617 at least four business days prior to the event.