Daily Archives: December 13, 2012

Lost Worlds, Lost Words


Samuel JohnsonMoidered. It sounds like something from the Three Stooges. Or maybe something Tony Soprano would say.”I moidered him.”  But it actually means “crazed,” according to Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary of 1755. It’s long since left  the stage of English usage.

Scan down another few inches and you’ll find “mome.” No, not “mome, mome on the range” or a reference to Mitt Romney’s bizarre religion. Mome means, “a dull, stupid blockhead” according to Johnson. I can think of a use for that right now. Some words deserve to be resurrected.

Johnson’s wasn’t the first dictionary of English – that honour goes back to The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knight, in 1538. That was a Latin-English dictionary. It wasn’t until 1604 that an English-English dictionary was published: Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall. Others followed between Cawdrey and Johnson. Many have been published since. But Johnson’s was the first truly scholarly and standardized dictionary. He backed up his list of almost 43,000 words with 114,000 quotations. It took him nine years to complete it.*

Words come into and go from English like species in Darwin’s evolving, ever-changing universe. It’s fascinating to go back even a half-century to see what we’ve lost, and to wonder what will happen to the everyday words we use today in another generation or two. It’s one of the reasons I delight in finding books and websites dedicated to forgotten words; it’s like a doorway into a lost world.**

Just flipping through the pages of Johnson’s magnificent work, I find a wealth of words that no longer find a place in our modern language and yet they are so delightful I want to find a use for them in my conversations:

  • Amatorculist
  • Amaritude
  • Bibacious
  • Consopiation
  • Enubilate
  • Flexanimous
  • Pauciloquy
  • Ruricolist
  • Runnion
  • Tremulent
  • Welkin

and many, many more. Of the above, only welkin appears in my recent edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the only one I recognized from that list. I’ll leave it up to you to learn about them and uncover their meaning.

I’d love to be able to write about the consopiation of viewers watching council on TV.

None of these terms appear in either of Jeffrey Kacirk’s two books on forgotten words (Forgotten English and The Word Museum). I have not yet checked Erin McKean’s two-volumes, however (Weird and Wonderful Words and Totally Weird and Wonderful Words) or some of the other, similar books in my library (like Shakespeare’s Words, which is also fun to peruse, although limited to that period and place in English literature and history).

The COED has its share of words that are either uncommon in modern use or are regional terms seldom heard here in Canada. These include (gathered in under 10 minutes of browsing last night):

  • Boffin
  • Bootblack
  • Flibbertigibbet
  • Lucubrate
  • Noddle
  • Offing
  • Puncheon
  • Quidnunc
  • Socage
  • Younker

I actually know most of them, although predominantly from my reading older works rather than from conversation; I doubt any of them are destined to remain in modern dictionaries for much longer. How many people speak of “in the offing” these days? Or call room service for a “bootblack” at a hotel? But flibbertigibbet still deserves to hang around and might find its way into some future blog commentary about local events.

There are many sites about lost words aside from Kacirk’s (linked above): for a sampling, read 20 obsolete words that deserve to make a comeback for a few, or favourite forgotten words, 20 forgotten words,  30 words, and difficult words (not so much forgotten, but it contains many words not in common use). And then, once your appetite is whetted, Google for more. Or get your own copy of Johnson and dive in.

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* Reading Johnson’s dictionary today is both a delight and a challenge. He was prone to mix his own comments and apply his wit to his definitions, and to sometimes guess at etymologies (often wildly). That makes it an entertaining read. However, in the original, it’s a bit of a slog for modern readers: the typography is antiquated, with ligatures not common in today’s typesetting, and it uses the extended s that looks like an f (so fishing looks like fifhing and song becomes fong,  which always made reading Izaac Walton in the original tough going).

You can download the original in PDF format at archive.org and work through the 2,300 pages onscreen (remember to download both volumes), or you can purchase a reprint (about $60 for both volumes) from Amazon. I suggest one of the modern abridgments. I like Jack Lynch’s 640-page version, but at 3,100 definitions it has a mere tenth of Johnson’s original work. Lynch’s notes and introduction are, however, invaluable.

** You should also try reading Chaucer in his original, Middle English. It’s a challenge, but for anyone interested in language, it’s also a voyage of discovery. A glossary is necessary, however.