Unremarkable Poetic Neologisms

The word soulmate is by now at least verging on cliché, if not well in that category, which is why it was somewhat surprising and refreshing to learn that the OED lists Coleridge as the first user of the word. It was a reminder that common words can have uncommon origins–and that the coiner loses control of his word the moment it goes public. We tend to think of new words as remarkable things, but they don’t always stay remarkable.

So I decided to have a closer look at the great poet-neologists [neologizers, neologians?] in OED2, to see which of their coinages have most firmly taken root in English. I took a few of the most frequently-cited first-users after about 1500, and collected only coinages occurring in poetry or verse drama. I then checked these for their frequency in the British National Corpus, both for all lemmas (BNC is marked up for this), and for the particular part of speech, when that was appropriate. I discounted those usages that clearly didn’t correspond to the most likely modern usage [like Spenser’s leave, v.3 “trans. To raise (an army)”].

Here are the top 5 or 6 most common words invented [*as far as first evidence in OED can be mapped to coinage] by these poets in verse:

Sidney

HeadwordDateWorkperM in BNC (pos)perM in BNC (all)
prevailing, ppl. a.1586Ps.9.259.25
refreshing, ppl. a.1580Ps.4.334.33
searching, ppl. a.1580Ps.1.902.63
limitless, a.1581Astr. St.1.811.81
meditate, v.1580Ps.1.641.67
flaky, a.1580Ps.0.460.46

Spenser

HeadwordDateWorkPPM in BNC (pos)PPM in BNC (all)
share, v.21590F.Q.115227.81
internal, a.1590F.Q.67.7867.92
pretend, v.1596F.Q.26.2126.82
formerly, adv.1596F.Q.20.1420.15
weave, v.21596F.Q.10.8812.35
shiny, a.1590F.Q.7.217.21
violin, sb.1579Sheph. Cal., April7.047.04

Donne

HeadwordDateWorkperM in BNC (pos)perM in BNC (all)
specific, a.1631Poems114.00114.90
distort, v.1631Litany9.079.07
rhythmic, a.1631Litany5.075.10
unfettered, ppl. a1601Progr. Soul1.301.30
examining, ppl. a.1608Sat0.981.01
pedantic, a.1600Sunne Rising0.820.85

Shakespeare

HeadwordDateWorkPPM in BNC (pos)PPM in BNC (all)
control, sb.1590Com. Err. 271.39 387.54
real, a.21601All's Well225.72230.32
despite, prep.15932 Hen. VI145.93145.95
list, sb.61602Ham.138.88183.79
design, v.1593Rich. II118.44267.35
exist, v.16.5Lear113.76113.78

Jonson

HeadwordDateWorkPPM in BNC (pos)PPM in BNC (all)
responsible, a.1599Ev. Man out of Hum.94.4794.47
extensive, a.1610Alch.41.2441.24
guitar, sb.1621Gipsies Metamorph.35.4235.44
nonsense, sb.1614Bart. Fair15.7415.75
exotic, a.1599Ev. Man out of Hum.11.3811.63

Milton

HeadwordDateWorkPPM in BNC (pos)PPM in BNC (all)
attack, sb.1667Paradise Lost 107.61 166.29
reluctant, a.1667Paradise Lost19.8719.87
explicit, a.1671Samson19.0219.02
damp, a. 11634Comus17.4920.42
surrounding, ppl. a1634Comus16.6616.68
stunning, ppl. a.21667Paradise Lost9.229.29

Dryden

HeadwordDateWorkPPM in BNC (pos)PPM in BNC (all)
widely, adv.1697Aeneis56.4656.46
yep, int.1690Don Sebastian13.2813.28
noisy, a.1696Epist. Sir G.10.4310.43
probe, v.1687Hind & P.7.3920.87
shocking, ppl. a.1697Virg. Georg.5.405.40
bewildered, ppl. a.1685Lucretius5.105.10

Pope

HeadwordDateWorkPPM in BNC (pos)PPM in BNC (all)
disc, sb.1715-20Illiad23.9623.99
scared, ppl. a.1725Odyss.11.1111.11
favoured, ppl. a.1725Odyss.6.726.72
elusive, a.1725Odyss.6.336.33
dated, ppl. a.1731Ep. Burlington3.293.29
inactive, a.1725Odyss.3.203.20

Coleridge

HeadwordDateWorkPPM in BNC (pos)PPM in BNC (all)
scathing, ppl. a.1794Monody Chatt.2.332.33
delightedly, adv.1800Piccolom.0.600.60
dipping, ppl. a.1798Anc. Mar0.541.00
egoistic, a. 1834On Faith0.49183.79
moralizing, ppl. a.1796To Yng. Friend0.060.17
unsealed, ppl. a.1800Piccolom.0.050.05

Tennyson

HeadwordDateWorkperM in BNC (pos)perM in BNC (all)
cycle, v.1842Two Voices5.9346.26
sardonically, adv.1842-51E Morris1.151.15
moonlit, a.1830Arab Nts.1.101.10
perky, a.1855Maud0.600.67
picnic, v.1842Audley Ct0.447.69
busted, a.1864En Ard0.380.38

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