8 words coined and popularized by Jonathan Swift


Three hundred and forty seven years ago today, Jonathan Swift was born.

A poet and cleric, Swift published many satirical works under various pseudonyms. Best known are his essay, "A Modest Proposal," in which he suggests the "impoverished Irish" sell their children to the rich as good eats; A Tale of a Tub, a satire on religious excess; and Gulliver's Travels, often seen as a children's book but also as "a satirical view of the state of European government."

Swift was also a proponent for "correcting" English as much as possible and hated "invented" words such as banter, mob, and bamboozle. However, he had no problem inventing words himself, as evinced by our eight favorites here.


"If this treatise should happen to be translated into the language of Brobdingnag (which is the general name of that kingdom,) and transmitted thither, the king and his people would have reason to complain that I had done them an injury by a false and diminutive representation."
Gulliver's Travels, 1726

Brobdingnag is the land of giants in Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The country is said to be "a continent-sized peninsula six thousand miles long and three thousand miles wide," although a "map shows Brobdingnag to be of a similar size and extent as the present-day Washington."

Brobdingnag gained the figurative meaning of anything immense or gigantic around 1731, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).


"The word Houyhnhnm, in their Tongue, signifies a Horse, and in its Etymology, the Perfection of Nature."
Gulliver's Travels, 1726

The houyhnhnm are a race of noble and intelligent horses that Gulliver encounters in the last part of Gulliver's Travels. They're endowed with reason — some say too much reason — and rule over the brutish Yahoos. The word houyhnhnm echoes the neighing of a horse.


"I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me, to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us."
Gulliver's Travels, 1726

Lilliputian has come to refer to anything small or trivial. The word is named for Lilliput, an island, along with Blefuscu, in Gulliver's Travels inhabited by people "about one-twelfth the height of ordinary human beings."

This fictional Lilliput is supposedly named after "the real area of Lilliput on the shores of Lough Ennell near Dysart." One day Swift "looked across the expanse of Lough Ennell" and spotted "the tiny human figures on the opposite shore of the lake," which gave him the idea of the lilliputian Lilliputians.


"The corruption of English by those Scribblers who send us over their trash in Prose and Verse, with abominable curtailings and quaint modernisms."
"LETTER LXXXVI: Dr Swift to Mr Pope," The Words of Jonathan Swift, 1714 to 1738

Modernism, as Swift coined the term, refers to "a usage, mode of expression, peculiarity of style, etc., characteristic of modern times," says the OED. Later, modernism came to mean any "innovative or distinctively modern feature."

In A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, Swift lauded the "purity" of Latin and ancient Greek, and bemoaned that "barbarous" custom of modern English poets "of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses; and this they have frequently done, so very injudiciously, as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds."


"The operation was performed by spargefaction in a proper time of the moon."
"A Tale of a Tub," 1889

Spargefaction, or the act of sprinkling, is a Jonathan Swifitie we should all be using more often. The word comes from the Latin spargere, "to scatter, sprinkle," plus facere, "to make." Spargere can also be found in words such as intersperse, aspersion, and sparse.


"The title of this chapter, a Truism."
"Remarks Upon a Book," The Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., 1824

A truism is a self-evident truth, more commonly known as a cliche.


"The name Cadenus is an anagram of Decanus; that of Vanessa is formed much in the same way, by placing the first syllable of her sir-name before her christian-name, Hessy."
William Monck Mason, "History and Antiquities of the Collegiate and Cathedral Church of St. Patrick, Near Dublin," 1820

The name Vanessa was coined by Swift as a pseudonym for his longtime lover Esther Vanhomrigh. According to the Baby Name Wizard, the prevalence of the name Vanessa peaked in the 1980s, perhaps because of the popularity of a certain show.

Vanessa is also a type of butterfly. How the butterfly came to be named is unclear. One theory says it's an alteration of Phanessa, "an ancient Greek deity."


"Yet, the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves."
Gulliver's Travels, 1726

The Yahoos in Gulliver's Travels are a brutish human-like race. Now the word Yahoo refers to any brute or uncouth person.

Yahoo as an exclamation of excitement is much newer, with the earliest recorded citation in the 1970s. The word is imitative, says the OED, perhaps of Swift's race of Yahoos.

As for Yahoo the search engine, the name is supposedly an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," although we suspect it's actually a backronym, with the name coming first followed by the acronym.


'Goblin mode' is Oxford Dictionary's word of the year
Oxford Dictionary sign
going goblin mode

'Goblin mode' is Oxford Dictionary's word of the year

Most Popular

Orlando's Gay Days draws LGBTQ crowds to Disney World amid DeSantis feud
Gay Days at Walt Disney World in 2023
Come as You Are

Orlando's Gay Days draws LGBTQ crowds to Disney World amid DeSantis feud

Jamie Dimon 2024?
Jamie Dimon on Capitol Hill

Jamie Dimon 2024?

Experimental drug shown to 'significantly' slow progression of brain cancer
Human brain scan.
Cancer breakthrough

Experimental drug shown to 'significantly' slow progression of brain cancer