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Writing an answer to another question, I stumbled upon a quote from The Hobbit:

Bilbo rushed along the passage, very angry, and altogether bewildered and bewuthered - this was the most awkward Wednesday he ever remembered. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 1 - An Unexpected Party)

'Bewuthered' is a word coined by Tolkien. Other coinages by Tolkien include 'flammifer' and 'eucatastrophe'.

Which made me wonder: when would an author coin a word, rather than use what's already in existence? Note, I am not talking about terms for new fantastical beings, like 'hobbit'. 'Bewuthered' appears to mean something along the lines of 'confused'.

So what prompts an author to coin a new word? How does one go about it? And what does one tell the editor, when the editor insists "bewuthered is not a word"?

  • Is the question limited only to words or maybe phrases consisting of a couple of words too? – rus9384 Nov 9 '18 at 6:55
  • @rus9384 You mean creating new expressions, metaphors etc.? Those are fairly common for writers, aren't they? – Galastel Nov 9 '18 at 8:57
  • I mean creating new terms, not just metaphors. Phrases which were not used before (or they were very unpopular). They might be connected with new concepts. Or just be funny. – rus9384 Nov 10 '18 at 12:35
  • @rus9384 Haven't thought about those really. – Galastel Nov 11 '18 at 17:29
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I would call this character building, both in practice and to the editor. The narrator is in Bilbo's mind (to know he is bewildered) and **Bilbo* considers himself "bewuthered", so this is a word he learned, perhaps a colloquial expression. I would assume, since "bewildered" indicates confusion, that "bewuthered" indicates something else, like frustration or irritation.

I would coin words sparingly, but in particular I would use coined words to highlight something about local culture, in this case, Hobbit culture. For myself they would refer to invented social roles, invented social customs, invented holidays or events or milestones in a life, like formally becoming an adult, or candidate for marriage.

They emphasize to the reader that these characters do have their own upbringing, thought patterns, and are not the neighbors next door. This is part of the fun of the fantasy, these hints of a whole other society and customs. But it can be overdone, I think it should be limited to usage where the meaning is easy to guess by context, or the meaning is not critical to the story. Both are true for "bewuthered", we don't know what it means precisely but we can guess the general tone of the meaning, and the exact meaning is not critical. In other circumstances, the meaning can be more precisely conveyed:

"Wait, aren't you betroken?"
"No, I lack two months."
"Seems like longer, I guess."
"To me too, believe me, and if I was, he'd get an earful from me."

So you get the idea "betroken" is something like tenure in this context, it provides some kind of immunity by seniority.

I think this usage by Tolkien is a valid candidate too, it sounds like some of our own couplets commonly used in thinking, "sick and tired", "said and done", "through and through", etc. But it rhymes a bit, like "tip to tail".

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So what prompts an author to coin a new word?

Usually a feeling that the mere pronunciation of it and its similarities to other words/constructions manages to evoke the feeling they mean the reader to take from it.

Constructing words is like Impressionistic painting, except the author is trying to evoke a feeling with a series of letters instead of paint on a canvas.

How does one go about it?

Studying languages for a long time, or at least the ways a language is used. Tolkien was a philologist, and some of his letters and such suggest that Middle Earth was created mostly because he wanted a history and reasons around the Elvish dialects he was creating.

Or just invent a word that sounds like what you want it to mean in the language you know.

And what does one tell the editor, when the editor insists "bewuthered is not a word"?

"It's meant to mean confusion, and you felt confused, right? But it also sounds like 'befuddled' and 'confuddled', which mean the same thing, and it's a Hobbit word in this book that sounds like it means that, and I put 'bewildered' in right by it to make the point clear, and I just wrote this fairytale for my kids - don't really care that much about getting it published." - An imagined interview between Tolkien and his agent.

Coining a word is like doing a stunt on a skateboard: if you pull it off, it's awesome. If you don't...

Well, you hit the ground either way. One way, you're still on the skateboard.

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A new concept - a new word

This also expands to more than a single word. But there are multiple variants of new concepts.

  1. Concepts that are a part of setting.

These are pretty simple: the setting is not our Earth, therefore evolution gone another way there. Or it can be far future. Or something else. Anyway, there will be plants and beings not occuring in our life. They need their own terms.

But this is not limited by objects. This can include verbs and adjectives. Maybe the beings in the setting are capable of something we are not? These things need new terms as well.

How to create them? Depends on the setting. But it probably is talent and experience.

  1. Concepts that have philosophical meaning.

These ones are more interesting. They are not necessarily a part of setting. Maybe the author thinks they should become the part of our life. In the novel I am writing I use the term "bed-close friendship" which I never heard of before, therefore I guess it counts as creating a new term. It has meaning: it is an alternative to relationships.

How? These ones should probably be based on real words. Therefore larger lexicon helps. And maybe eureka.

Refreshing old concepts

It can also be the case when the concept is laready recognized in this world but for some reason it happened to be unpopular. Maybe society even has negative connotations regarding it without even knowing what it denotes. In this case it might be helpful to introduce a new name for it.

Translation

It can be the case when a word in another language has no alternative on yours. Often it makes sense to not translate it. But there are cases when you should translate. Maybe for a rhyme. Maybe for some other reason.

Playing with words

Sometimes you just might want to have fun of words. Making puns, portmanteaus, etc. I am not writing my novel on English, but it has a word which on English means "copulations", and one English I'd like it to be translated "copulationships". Partially, just because I want to play with words. Partially, because it rhymes with word "relationships", which I make fun of.


There are many reasons and I'm not sure I covered all of them. But probably the most prominent ones. As long as there is a reason there is something you can tell to the editor. Will the editor accept it? Hard to say.

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Necessity, whether artistic or otherwise would be a common impulse for coining a word.

I never thought I would need to, but I ended up coining a word in my current work. I needed a word with the right shade of meaning, sound and feel and could not find it. I was certain the word existed, one of those delightful and colourful regional words, but when I googled it, nothing.

I found myself creating a word with a strong regional flavour and the intensity of meaning that I desired. I had the character reflect on how his grandfather had been astonished that he had not known that this word meant such, so added the definition in the same paragraph.

Should an editor ever tell me it isn’t a word, well, it is now.

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