Arts & Culture

You can quote them

Words we owe to Yalies.

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, is a frequent contributor to the OED.

Photo Illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Photo Illustration: John Paul Chirdon

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In this column and the next, I turn from quotations per se to the coining of words. Yale neologists have made huge contributions to our vocabulary, both popular and technical. Which Yale word-coiner was the most important? The choice of the master linguistic progenitor is no easy one.

Let me start by making clear what I am not looking for. First, I am not looking for those associated with words they did not actually use. So the great Samuel A. Maverick, Class of 1825, doesn't count. But I can still tell you about him: Maverick was a Texas politician and rancher, considered independent-minded because he did not brand his cattle. Hence by the late 1800s the term maverick, one of 2008's favorite words, came into common usage to refer to an independent-minded person. (Samuel Maverick's neological legacy was further established, long after his death, when in 1944 his grandson, Congressman Maury Maverick, invented the term gobbledygook.)

Similarly, I am not looking for popularizers who used words they did not invent. This eliminates the great Grace Murray Hopper ’34PhD, the computer scientist who developed the first compiler for a programming language. Hopper is widely celebrated as the coiner of the computer term bug, because in 1947 she taped a moth found inside an early computer into her log, with the notation, "First actual case of bug being found." However, Thomas Edison frequently used bug in a similar sense in the late 1800s. Hopper and her colleagues must have thought the discovery of the moth remarkable because mechanical defects were already called bugs.

Who are the legitimate Yale word and phrase coiners? I have found a striking list of Yale graduates and professors who, along with landmark scientific and technological discoveries and inventions, introduced landmark scientific and technological terms.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits the first use of the word radio, in 1907, to Lee De Forest ’96PhB, ’99PhD, one of the principal founders of radio technology. Yale physicist Ernest O. Lawrence ’25PhD created the cyclotron -- both the thing and the word, which the OED dates to 1935.

A particularly interesting coinage is quark. The Nobelist and physicist Murray Gell-Mann ’48 launched this word in print in 1964. He later wrote to the editor of the OED Supplement: "I employed the sound 'quork' for several weeks in 1963 before noticing 'quark' in Finnegans Wake, which I had perused from time to time since it appeared in 1939. . . . The allusion to three quarks seemed perfect."

Benoit Mandelbrot, at Yale since 1987, coined the word fractal in 1975 to describe his novel geometry. R. Gordon Gould ’42MS first used the word laser, as an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. The OED does not credit him, having 1960 as its earliest citation, but in fact Gould employed the term in a November 1957 notebook.

Yale social scientists have also been prolific as word creators. The sociologist Thorstein Veblen, 1884PhD, has conspicuous consumption (OED 1899) to his credit. Raphael Lemkin, who taught at Yale Law School from 1948 to 1951, crafted the term genocide (OED 1944). Peter Salovey ’86PhD -- psychology professor and now provost -- is widely regarded as the popularizer of emotional intelligence, with John D. Mayer, although the OED does record some usages prior to Salovey and Mayer's 1990 paper.

All these coinages, however, were one-offs. We must turn now to those Yale neologists who minted multiple terms, and I will do so in the next column.

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