5 Seemingly Legit Words Someone Just Made Up
“All words are made up,” said a wise man once. That may be true. Most words were made up by anonymous people, ages ago, by combining existing sounds, and with no realization of how wide the word would spread. Other, words, however were very purposefully authored. Words like...
Though the general word “viewer,” meaning one who views, has been around for centuries, we want to talk today about one precise current definition: someone watching TV. We call TV audiences “viewers,” with weird specificity. We never call them watchers, or seers, or witnesses, even though all those words in theory could mean the same thing. We also rarely use viewer to describe people who view any kind of entertainment other than a glass screen. Moviegoers generally aren’t called viewers, even though they’re acting pretty much exactly the same as when they watch TV, and you’d never call a sports fan who attends a game a viewer.
TV viewers got their name thanks to a formal group called The BBC Sub-Committee for the Invention of New Words. The committee of 10 people (we have their names, like Lord Cecil, Rose Macaulay and Sir Kenneth) convened in 1935 to discuss how to describe the new medium of television. Among other items, the agenda discussed what to call the TV audience, similar to how the radio audience was called listeners.
They came up with “televiewers.” Then, after a little more discussion, they changed their mind and went with the shorter “viewers.” Another choice we could have easily ended up with was “gazer,” favored by committee member Logan Pearsall Smith. Now just be thankful that they didn’t saddle us with one of these other runners-up that they considered: teleserver, teleobservist, glancer, vizzior or auralooker.
“Mortician” looks like a word composed of Latin roots. Mort means death. And -ician must mean “doctor,” which is how we got words like optician and pediatrician.
Only, no, not quite; -ician is not a Latin suffix. An optician doesn’t study “opt” — they study optics. Pediatrician similarly comes not from pediatr- but from pediatrics. So, someone who studies mort- might be a mortian, if the word evolved naturally. Instead, someone put the word together inexpertly, much like with the word beautician.
That someone was a reader of Embalmers’ Monthly, a trade magazine. We’d totally invent Embalmers’ Monthly if we were listing ridiculous hypothetical magazines, but it really existed. In 1895, they ran a contest to come up with a new word for “undertaker.” Customers had all kinds of negative associations with the word undertaker, for the very reasonable reason that their every previous experience with undertakers followed miserable tragedy.
The magazine picked “mortician” from submissions. Maybe they liked the clinical sound. In the years that followed, no one was a huge fan of the word, and it failed to change how people reacted to the profession. Undertakers themselves grew to believe that clinical is the wrong route, which is why they’re more likely now to call themselves something more euphemistic, like “funeral home director.” The real way to get people to like them, it turned out, wasn’t to choose any particular name but to get people to watch Six Feet Under.
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that states got their names because people met one day to formally assign them. States are only a few hundred years old — they had to have gotten their names that way. Still, these names usually came from earlier words, often either earlier names for the same area. Massachusetts, for example, came from the Massachusett tribe, and the name means “around the big hill.” Dakota is a tribe too, while a bunch of other states take their names from native words that aren’t tribes.
Around 1875, a man named George Willing was a delegate from an unnamed U.S. territory. He suggested they name the place Idaho. Idaho was an Indian word meaning “gem of the mountains,” said Willing, and the place had some amazing mountains. It sounded like a good enough name, until people poked around and weren’t able to track down what language “Idaho” came from. Willing had just pulled that etymology out of his ass. It seems he actually wanted to name the territory after someone named Ida, and he tried to fool everyone into doing so.
So, the place rejected Willing’s suggestion and instead adopted the name “Colorado,” a word with Spanish origins. Unfortunately, another territory a little north heard Willing’s suggestion but forgot the debunking, and they went with Idaho. As for Willing himself, his chicanery went beyond just choosing weird names. He pulled off a bunch of crooked land deals, and the day after pulling one off, he was found dead. No one bothered investigating how he'd died.
“Wi-Fi” looks like an abbreviation of some kind. The wi part probably stands for “wireless” (never mind the absurdity of using the first syllable of “wire” to indicate something that doesn’t use wires). And the -fi part? That stands for... free?
If you’re of a certain age, “Wi-Fi” will remind you of Hi-Fi, a name used for high-fidelity sound systems. This was indeed what people were thinking of when they came up with the name Wi-Fi. However, Wi-Fi doesn’t stand for wireless fidelity (which is a nonsense phrase), or for anything else. It just stands for itself.
In 1999, this particular protocol was called IEEE 802.11, but that’s not a very snappy name, so the industry came up with a marketing term. Then a bunch of these companies formed a group called the Wi-Fi Alliance, so they could trademark the word they’d made. That’s why, today, when you sell a laptop that lacks IEEE 802.11 security protocols, you legally can’t advertise it as “featuring Wi-Fi” just because it comes with a side of fiery wings.
Here’s a word you may never have heard of before. If you stick it into a search engine, right at the top of the results will be the following definition: “deliberate shirking of one’s official duties.” Below that definition, however, you’re not going to find a great many pages using “esquivalience” in that manner. It’s likely that no one has ever legitimately used the word that way — not even once.
Oxford put the word and that definition in their dictionary not too long ago, in 2001. They were following up on a long tradition of encyclopedias and maps including fake entries. The goal here is to trick competitors into including that same entry. The competitor couldn’t have got that info from anywhere but the original uncredited atlas / encyclopedia / dictionary, so by including it, the copycat outs themselves as a plagiarist.
By the time the 21st century started, reference work copyright lawsuits weren’t what they used to be. Oxford still wanted to see who else would define esquivalience, to reveal the reach of the new Oxford electronic dictionary.
Those competing dictionaries, perhaps, would argue that esquivalience isn’t a fake word at all. As soon as you coin a word, you have made it into a word. UrbanDictionary.com features innumerable words that — until someone posted it there — no one ever used, words describing sex acts no one ever tried. But people upvote the entries, start using those words and manage those creative sex acts.
Language is cromulent like that.