Saving Fubsy from Lexicographical Caliginosity


Old DictionaryCousin Stephen, you will never be a saint. Isle of saints. You were awfully holy, weren’t you? You prayed to the Blessed Virgin that you might not have a red nose. You prayed to the devil in Serpentine avenue that the fubsy widow in front might lift her clothes still more from the wet street. O si, certo! Sell your soul for that, do, dyed rags pinned round a squaw. More tell me, more still!! On the top of the Howth tram alone crying to the rain: Naked women! naked women! What about that, eh?

A fubsy window? A short and stocky window.

You will likely have recognized the quote from James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Joyce coined a few words – monomyth and quark for example – but fubsy wasn’t among them. Oxford Dictionary tells us it comes from the:

…late 18th century: from dialect fubs ‘small fat person’, perhaps a blend of fat and chub

Which sounds a bit like a Johnsonian guess for its etymology rather than a precise statement.

Merriam Webster says the first recorded use is 1780, and that it means, “chubby and somewhat squat.” Collins Dictionary tells us it comes from “obsolete fubs plump person.”

Or, as the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 12th (printed) edition, defines it, “fat and squat.”

Fub shows up in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as “a plump, chubby boy.” Somewhere between that and 1597, the definition changed. In 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare had Falstaff using fub in a line to Prince Hal, meaning “fob off, cheat, rob”. And in 2 Henry IV, “fub off” is to used to mean “fob off, put off.” (according to Shakespeare’s Words by David & Ben Crystal) English poet John Marston (1576 –  1634) first used “fubbery” to mean cheating.

Somehow fub seems to have evolved from cheat to fat. Maybe they were just homonyms. Or maybe Shakespeare was just playing his usual word games.

Fubsy seems an appropriate adjectival form of fub, like cutesy is to cute, and hotsy (as in hotsy totsy in that rather peripatetic journey slang often takes) comes from hot and thus to hottie. However, fub also spawned the adjective fubby, which also means fat and chubby, plump, or short and stuffy. And I would expect is equally at risk of being expurgated.

Many of the online dictionaries repeat the same usage of a “fubsy sofa.”

Never heard that when I was walking around the local Leons or The Brick stores looking for furniture; customers trying to tell the salespeople, “We’re looking for a fubsy little sofa, not anything in leather, maybe something dark…”

None of those flaccid online dictionaries (that copy from each other without editorial control or ovesight) provide a literary source for such usage. With a little help from Google, I found one in an 1837 book called, The dog fiend, or Snarleyyow, written by Frederick Marryat, a contemporary of Charles Dickens:

Mr Vanslyperken had arrived, paid his humble devoirs to the widow, more humble, because he was evidently pleased with his own person, and had been followed by Smallbones, who laid the biscuit by the scraper at the door, watching it as in duty bound.  The lieutenant imagined that he was more graciously received than usual.  Perhaps he was, for the widow had not had so much custom lately, and was glad the crew of the cutter were arrived to spend their money.  Already had Vanslyperken removed his sword and belt, and laid them with his three-cornered laced hat on the side-table; he was already cosily, as of wont, seated upon the widow’s little fubsy sofa, with the lady by his side, and he had just taken her hand and was about to renew his suit, to pour forth the impromptu effusions of his heart, concocted on the quarter-deck of the Yungfrau, when who should bolt into the parlour but the unwelcome Snarleyyow.

The phrase also appears in a 1957 poem by Sylvia Plath, The Disquieting Muses:

The roses in the toby jug
Gave up the ghost last night. High time.
Their yellow corsets were ready to split.
You snored, and I heard the petals unlatch,
Tapping and ticking like nervous fingers.
You should have junked them before they died.
Daybreak discovered the bureau lid
Littered with Chinese hands. Now I’m stared at
By chrysanthemums the size
Of Holofernes’ head, dipped in the same
Magenta as this fubsy sofa.
In the mirror their doubles back them up.
Listen: your tenant mice
Are rattling the cracker packets. Fine flour
Muffles their bird-feet: they whistle for joy.
And you doze on, nose to the wall.
This mizzle fits me like a sad jacket.
How did we make it up to your attic?
You handed me gin in a glass bud vase.
We slept like stones. Lady, what am I doing
With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood,
Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?

Collins inadvertently made the word into a cause, even a minor celebrity, when it decided to drop fubsy from its printed dictionary. In 2008, to make room for a growing list of new entries, the Collins’ editors announced a short list of words they deemed obsolete, and to be removed from the paper version. That sparked an online furor among lexophiles, and an online petition by the Times of London to save readers’ favourite words from the list of those soon-to-be expunged.

Time Magazine wrote that,

The lexicographers behind Britain’s Collins English Dictionary have decided to exuviate (shed) rarely used and archaic words as part of an abstergent (cleansing) process to make room for up to 2,000 new entries. “We want the dictionary to be a reflection of English as it is currently spoken,” says Ian Brookes, managing editor of Collins, “rather than a fossilized version of the language.”

Which is ironic. The announcement by Collins actually put those words into more online posts, articles and blogs within a week than in any books they’d appeared in for the previous century. So the announcement they were obsolete breathed new life into them.

Blogger Ben Zimmer wrote that many of these words, “have the whiff of quaint museum pieces.” Which, for someone involved in words (the Visual Thesaurus), is a terribly subjective approach. After all, what may seem quaint to one person may be part of a healthy, vibrant local dialect only a few furlongs away.

While the petition is long since gone offline, Zimmer provides the entire list of words Collins proposed to remove. The numbers after them are the number of results for that word I got from Google this morning:

  • abstergent: cleansing or scouring (65,300)
  • agrestic: characteristic of the fields or country; rustic and uncouth (438,000)
  • apodeictic: necessarily true or logically certain (77,100)
  • caducity: perishableness; senility (119,000)
  • caliginosity: dimness; darkness (55,100)
  • compossible: possible in coexistence with something else (238,000)
  • embrangle: make more complicated or confused through entanglements (38,700)
  • exuviate: cast off (hair, skin, horn, or feathers) (81,900)
  • fatidical: prophetic (40,000)
  • fubsy: short and stout; squat (63,300)
  • griseous: streaked or mixed with grey; somewhat grey (53,000)
  • malison: a curse (595,000)
  • mansuetude: gentleness or mildness (58,800)
  • muliebrity: the state of being an adult woman (61,700)
  • niddering: cowardly (15,600)
  • nitid: bright with a steady but subdued shining (582.000)
  • olid: foul-smelling (3,860,000)
  • oppugnant: combative, antagonistic or contrary (45,700)
  • periapt: a charm or amulet (102,000)
  • recrement: waste matter; refuse; dross (29,900)
  • roborant: tending to fortify or increase strength (79,400)
  • skirr: a whirring or grating sound, as of the wings of birds in flight (183,000)
  • vaticinate: foretell through or as if through the power of prophecy (36,300)
  • vilipend: to treat or regard with contempt (46,800)

Eleven thousand people responded to the petition, and their favourite word to save was “embrangle” (1,434 votes), with fubsy a “distant second.” That was despite the efforts of actor Stephen Fry to champion fubsy. Time tells us

Roborant (tending to fortify) and nitid (bright, glistening) failed to shine; they finished last, drawing roughly 550 votes between them.

Based solely of the Google results above, oild should have been number one by a long stretch, followed by nitid at a distant second.

I have to admit that, of the 24 words above, I was familiar with only five (exuviate, mansuetude, muliebrity, nitid and skirr). Niddering tugs at my memory, but I can’t place it. Periapt is apparently used in fantasy role-playing games, as far back as Dungeons and Dragons, but I can’t recall ever coming across it in my years of playing FRPGs. Perhaps my games never embrangled me that far.

Of course, removing a word from a dictionary doesn’t mean it disappears, any more than taking a book off a library shelf to replace it with a new book means that old book disappears from print. It just means publishers have to make room for new words in a limited amount of space. As David Crystal writes in The Story of English in 100 Words,

Just because words are left out of a dictionary of standard English doesn’t mean they have disappeared from the language… Some of the words remain alive and well in regional dialects.

To which I have to add that saving words from such a fate is done by using them – not by posting petitions online. So posts like this make keep fubsy and oppugnant and roborant alive simply by repeating them and hoping someone else will pick up on them and drop them into a poem or novel. Surely there must be a contest out there to see how many of these words can be used in a single paragraph.

Fubsy still lingers in use, a pale shadow of its former self – while fellow lexicographical travellers like fopdoodle, nappiness,bodgery and collachrymate have gone into the linguistic dustbin.

Only recently, thanks to the internet, have some of these forgotten and lost words been resurrected, mostly for the sheer pleasure of the users (like mumpsimus, one of my favourite lost words). There are many sites (here and here for example) now dedicated to keeping these forgotten words alive. Or at least less forgotten.

Time concluded, somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

But reaction to the potential axing of words has revealed specialized meanings that seem to have escaped the dictionary’s compilers. David Pybus, a perfumer in London, says agrestic’s alternate meaning should qualify it for preservation: “It is used,” he says, “in the perfume and flavor industry quite extensively to describe an aroma note or type which is ‘of the countryside,’ such as hay, heather, forest depths or meadow.” Who knew? Elsewhere, fantasy-game devotees have rushed to the defense of periapt (a charm or amulet), which they know from the popular Dungeons & Dragons game, and geologists have pointed out the utility of griseous (streaked or mixed with gray) in describing rocks and minerals. Apparently, one man’s linguistic recrement (waste, refuse) is another man’s treasure.

Perhaps what we can glean from Joyce and Plath is that fubsy is still alive and a vital part of the lingua franca of the furniture or interior design trades. In warehouses and sales floors managers are right now muttering about discounting fubsy sofas and architects about upgrading fusby windows. Perhaps the word will live on despite being dispossessed of space in the Collins dictionary.