National Inventor's Day is February 11th.
It isn't the most popular holiday. It's not the most religious or commercial. It's not the funniest (hello, Arbor Day). But it sure is the most creative and innovative.
Practically everything you have was invented by someone, from the phone in your pocket to the drone in your airspace, which is hopefully not an enemy drone sizing you up. Forget I said anything. Even the wheel was invented by someone, though that remarkable caveperson has been lost to history.
So let's salute the vocabulary of invention, in hopes of a bright future of cybernetic chickens and Martian salons and who knows what else.
This is a word heard often in the tech world of apps, clouds, bundles, plug-ins, and other gizmos, and why not? An innovation is the development of something new, and new is necessary in the race to create the best phone, laptop, TV, or (come on, guys) jetpack. This word has been found in English since the 1500s and has the verb form innovate. Innovating is a giant part of what inventors do. The Latin roots of this term link it to some other words for new things, like novel and novelty.
Speaking of novel, this is different from the noun meaning a book of fiction, such as the latest novel by Leigh Bardugo. As an adjective, novel means new, fresh, innovative, unprecedented. A novel idea is the opposite of a tired, old-timey idea: a novel turn of phrase is the opposite of a cliché. Inventors chase the novel.
If you look at this word closely, you'll see a little genius, and that's appropriate. Ingenuity is the quality of being ingenious. The ingenious have a level of creativity and insight most of us poor slobs will never achieve. The truly ingenious would include folks like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. Of course, like most words, this one is often used loosely, since the only thing people like more than pizza is exaggeration. If you said, "Let's get a pizza with goat cheese and pineapple!" a hungry friend might say, "That's ingenious!" But I wouldn't get a big head about that one.
An invention starts with an idea, and here's a fancy word for the process of coming up with ideas: ideation. Inventors are whizzes at ideating. When you think of ideating, imagine a light bulb flashing over your head. Ideation is close to inspiration. Inspiration might make a poet write a sestet, but it makes an inventor come up with an app that figures out where missing socks go (patent pending).
Speaking of patent, it has a long history in the legal lexicon, referring to various documents conferring some sort of right or privilege. But since the 1500s, it's held the current meaning: a license that gives you ownership over a certain thingamajig or doodad. If you have the patent to produce self-buttering pancakes, then you've got the self-buttering pancake market cornered. Inventors strive to get their products patented, just in case someone else out there has a similar idea, which has often happened: great minds really do tend to think alike. People also use this word loosely for anything a person is known for, like a football player's patented touchdown dance or an artist's patented brushstroke.
There's an old saying: "Every chicken started as a feather." Wait, not that saying. Rather, "Necessity is the mother of invention," which means, "People tend to invent things that are needed." Necessity is a synonym for need, and it can refer to anything stronger than a want. Food and shelter are necessities for life. Powerful rockets were a necessity for the moon landing. For a fish, water is a necessity. Just because you want something badly doesn't make it a necessity. An everything bagel with garlic cream cheese may feel like a necessity, but it's really just a great idea.
You've probably heard this term used to describe the plans for something. Folks come up with blueprints for better health, less pollution, career advancement, and football games. But the original meaning, first found in the mid-1800s, was far more literal. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, a blueprint was, "a photographic print composed of white lines on a blue background, used chiefly in copying plans, machine drawings, etc." From there, the term spread to any technical drawings, and then any plans, full stop, by the early 1900s.
A concept is an idea, so inventors tend to be pretty strong conceptual thinkers. The adjective version of this word often turns up in the art world. Paintings or sculptures that are realistic are representational, but art that's more about an idea — like Duchamp's famous "Fountain," which is just a regular urinal plopped into a museum — are called conceptual. For conceptual art, it's all about the idea.
So when you're talking about new stuff, don't reinvent the wheel or blow out the blueprint. English is already pretty newtastic.
Learn these and other related words by practicing this list: The Ingenious Lexicon of Invention
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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