Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

What does “to coin a word” mean?

The meaning of “to coin (a word or phrase)” is changing and there’s a clear-cut need for some kind of disambiguation.

The new meaning of the verb, supported by any number of news articles or blog entries, seems to be “to say, especially in a noteworthy fashion” and not the older “to create a unique expression; to say something for the first time ever; to neologize.”

This article claims two fellows coined the word redonkulous, but it’s not clear which meaning of “coined” was intended. Probably the old meaning—that the word was first said, ever, by the two men in question, in which case the reporter is wrong.

A clear-cut case of the old meaning of “coined” is in this article, where the author claims Clarence Williams, the Delta-born pianist and publisher, coined the word “jazz.” Here they are citing Williams himself who made the bold claim that he used the word first, ever, which is so far unsupported by the evidence.

In this article, when Raymond Graves writes, “President Bush coined the word ‘war’ to suit and fuel his desire to attack Saddam Hussein,” it’s clear the new meaning of “coined” is intended, because, of course, the word “war” was not first said, ever, by the president of the United States and nobody sane would think so.

No doubt the expression “to coin a phrase,” tacked on after things that the speaker knows has been said before, is influencing this change in meaning.

In my own writing, I think I’ll disambiguate by using the verb “neologize” when necessary and by avoiding “to coin” altogether.

author avatar
Grant Barrett