[Here’s Audrey’s latest installment in the Women’s Art is Women’s Work series—enjoy!]
Many familiar words and phrases come down to us from early women writers. It may seem ironic that the pioneering playwright Aphra Behn coined the phrase “here today, and gone tomorrow” (The Lucky Chance, 1687), since she didn’t achieve her desired wish of becoming a household word. But she and other female wordsmiths left their mark on the English language.
From the 1600s on, the world of letters became more concrete as printing presses churned out books and other reading matter to meet the demands of an increasingly literate population. This growth in print culture created new possibilities for women authors, and many found ways to get published. In doing so, they helped to broaden (pun intended!) our vocabulary.
The earliest dictionaries aimed to standardize language, and that formidable and ever-evolving tome, The Oxford English Dictionary, lists numerous women writers as the starting point in print for countless common words. Whether the authors invented new words, imported expressions from other languages, or caught phrases from the life around them, the OED gives credit to the first one to put a given word down on the page and offer it up to posterity as part of the English vernacular.
Like many logophiles—geeky word-lovers, that is—we used to spend hours scanning the pages of the compact (but still hefty) version of the OED—with that tiny magnifying glass, of course—and delighting in its revelations and oddities. The electronic version makes things much easier on our eyes, and with a bit of search-engine-fueled detective work, we compiled the following assortment of words that our foremothers originally brought into print.
Monuments to women’s ingenuity, these linguistic firsts speak to us—and through us— down the ages. Even if you don’t know who the writers are, chances are, these women have put words in your mouth.
A partial list
Baseball (n) “Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her…[preferred] cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.” Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1815)
Bon-bon (n) “Clarendel, lounging upon a chair in the middle of the shop, sat eating bon bons.” Frances Burney, Camilla (1796)
Cardboard (n) “The pencil leaves an impression upon card-board that no amount of rubbing can efface.” Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)
Co-ed (n) “Girls…ought not to study so much. Never liked co-ed.” Louisa May Alcott, Jo’s Boys (1886)
Door-bell (n) “Lady Russell could not hear the door-bell.” Jane Austen, Persuasion (1815)
Grumpy (a) “You were so grumpy you would not let me.” Frances Burney, Diary (1784)
Lunch-time (n) “He can't take us wrongly any day either at 1 o'clock, (lunch-time) or at half past 5 (dinner).” George Eliot, Letter of October 10, 1854
Masquerade (v) “Pedro: …how came the Garden Door open? Steph.: That Question comes too late Sir, some of my Fellow Servants Masquerading I'le warrant.” Aphra Behn, The Rover (1677)
Novella (n), “If the Play of the Novella were as well worth remembring as Thomaso, they might..have as well said, I took it from thence.” Aphra Behn, Postscript to The Rover (1677)
Plain sailing (fig.) "The rudiments, which would no sooner be run over, than the rest would become plain sailing." Frances Burney, Camilla (1796)
Shopper (n) “She is very dainty-fingered, a beautiful ready workwoman, a capital shopper…” Elizabeth Gaskell, Letter of August 27, 1860
Warm-up (n) “A knot of the talkers were gathered round the stove, having a final talk and warm-up.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, Poganuc People (1878)
Wild West “What suggested the wild West to your mind?” Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (1849)
Audrey Bilger, © 2007-2009
Pix from Top
A 19th century "co-ed" baseball game—looks like fun!
The OED (first edition, pre-magnifying glass)
Bon-bons: This image is published by tup wanders under a Creative Commons Attribtion 2.0 license
Anne Brontë: an 1834 drawing by her sister Charlotte Brontë
Elizabeth Gaskell: an 1851 portrait