Tag Archives: words

What’s in a (Popular) Name?


What's in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

A recent article in The Atlantic about how our names impact our lives got me to thinking about how and why we name our children – and what they say about us, about our parents, what our names mean to others of their generation. And why are some names popular at certain times in history. Like now.

According to babycenter.com, these are the ten most popular baby names for 2013:

Girls:

  1. Sophia
  2. Emma
  3. Olivia
  4. Isabella
  5. Mia
  6. Ava
  7. Lily
  8. Zoe
  9. Emily
  10. Chloe

Boys:

  1. Jackson
  2. Aiden
  3. Liam
  4. Lucas
  5. Noah
  6. Mason
  7. Jayden
  8. Ethan
  9. Jacob
  10. Jack

That just makes me feel like I’ve missed a genealogical bus somewhere. Of those 20 names, I doubt I’d name a child most of them. But that may be a generational thing; I was raised with a different set of names. Some of these names are also – from my perspective – old-fashioned. I suppose that’s the around-again effect we see in so many other cultural items (like the endless recycling of pop music tropes from the 60s and 70s…).

Still, I wouldn’t name a child a lot of things, from Crystal to Britney to River (or Dweezil or Moon Unit). I might give a girl the middle name of Yseult and a boy Tristam, but only because I would want to be able to explain the wonderful, romantic story behind those names… I wouldn’t want to burden them with these as first names.

My wife’s name, Susan – a name that I love to hear and still sounds like wind chimes to me after more than 30 years – doesn’t appear in the top 100, while my own shows up at a mere number 80. That surprises me somewhat, because at least when I was growing up, my name was a rarity and Susan was popular, at least in my travelled circles.

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Ruthful, funct and doleless


Crazy EnglishWhy can’t someone be clueful, only clueless? Hapful, not simply hapless? Aweless instead of just awful? Ruthful not merely ruthless? Doleless, not just doleful? Gormful, not just gormless?

We can be thoughtful or thoughtless, careful or careless, mindful and mindless. Why not ruthful and gormful? Why not the qualities of ruthiness, gormliness and doleliness?

Can we be kempt or just unkempt? Couth or just uncouth? Gruntled or just disgruntled? Shevelled or just dishevelled?* Maculate or just immaculate? Domitable, or just indomitable? Ruly or just unruly? Can we come ravelled instead of just unravelled? Can we member a corpse instead of just dismember it? Can a Wikipedia entry be an ambiguation rather than a title=”Wikipedia” href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Disambiguation” target=”_blank”>disambiguation?

If we’re not disappointed are we appointed? If not distressed are we tressed? If not discombobulated are we combobulated? If not nonplussed, are we plussed? If we’re not impeccable, are we just peccable? Can we be chalant rather than nonchalant? If we don’t want to dismantle something, can we mantle it? If we don’t disfigure a painting, do we figure it? If it’s not inevitable, is it evitable? If an event doesn’t unnerve us, is it nerving? If it’s not defunct is it funct? If an online hoax isn’t debunked, can it be bunked instead?

Can we be placcable, effable, trepid, ert, ane and feckful? can I rupt the proceedings? Can any love be requited? Can any heroes be sung? If I don’t dismiss you, do I miss you? If you stop your incessant chatter, does it become cessant? If I’m not an imbecile in your eyes, am I a becile? Can a tool be wieldy?

Some of these odd-seeming words have been in our language, just fallen out of favour or replaced by other terms. Ruthful, the Word Detective tells us, was in common use in the 12th until the 14th century, although it hung around as an anachronism until the 19th century.** Ruly was coined around 1400 CE, according to World Wide Words. Tools could never be wieldy, but persons could be, in the sense of being nimble (same source).

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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.

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Dictionaries: Concise, Compact, and dacoit


Compact Oxford DictionaryDacoit: noun; one of a class of criminals in India and Burma who rob and murder in roving gangs. A member of a band of armed robbers in India or Burma. A bandit. Origin: Hindi and Urdu.

I love dictionaries. I like opening them up to a random page and just reading, discovering words and uses that I didn’t know. I love finding origins of words and phrases; linguistic connections between past and present. I will happily spend hours reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, or a glossary of Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s words.

I’ll open any dictionary at random and read a page or two. I’m almost always assured I will find something new. Some, like Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, are delights to read; others are dry and dull.

“Do you read the dictionary?” French author Théophile Gautier once asked a young poet. “It is the most fruitful and interesting of books.”

Last week I bought a used copy of the Oxford Compact English Dictionary, 2005 edition, at the local used bookstore, Cover to Cover (used, but is superb condition, I should add). And when I opened it at random to page 247, I read the definition of dacoit – a word I can’t ever recall encountering before last week. Sandwiched between dachshund and dactyl. Now I know a lot more about it, thanks to a bit of research in print and online sources.

It’s still in use today, albeit not in any media I regularly read. Every reference I’ve found comes from India or Pakistan. In 2004, The Telegraph of Calcutta wrote about the violent evolution of dacoits:

Sten guns, cellphones and agents on the job ‘ the image of the Chambal dacoit has changed over the years. What hasn’t is the centuries-old cycle of violence in the region.

The International News of Pakistan had a headline as recently as Dec. 19, 2013, saying:

Most-wanted dacoit carrying Rs1m bounty arrested

Dacoit, according to the two-volume Oxford Compact Dictionary, has many 19th century references for use in English, dating as far back as 1820. It’s also referred to as dacoity and dacoitery in some sources.

Wikipedia tells us the East India Company established “the Thuggee and Dacoity Department” in 1830. The ruling British enacted legislation called the “Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts” in India between 1836 and 1848. Thuggee has survived in English, reduced to the shorter “thug.”

Not that I’d have much reason to use dacoit in any form. It’s one of those imperialist-period words that wouldn’t find a place in a contemporary vocabulary. George Orwell would have known it; maybe my father uttered it sometime before he left England. I have to wonder what force is keeping it intact in a dictionary that is constantly pressured by new entries: neologisms and borrowed words from other languages that keep popping into our increasingly international, technological language.

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The Fretful Porpentine


Fretful porpentineLike quills upon the fretful porpentine. That phrase just makes the modern reader stop and wonder. What, you ask yourself, is a porpentine? And why is it fretful?

We never learn, although later interpreters would knowingly tell us a porpentine is a porcupine in today’s argot. Porcupine itself dervices from the Old or Middle French term, “porc espin” or spined pig. Which it isn’t – it’s a rodent*

It’s an old word, encountered earlier as “purpentine” in 1589, but hardly a common word in any spelling after that, at least not in drama.**

Shakespeare wrote it as porpentine in 1602. One seldom encounters the word between his Hamlet and the middle of the 20th century, when it reappears in The Amazing Vacation, a children’s fantasy novel written in 1956 by Dan Wickenden. It also appears in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1960 novel about Bertie Wooster, Jeeves in the Offing.***

Today, of course, the word porpentine is frequently paired with the adjective fretful on may online sites and blogs. In more common use is the phrase “hair stand on end,” penned in the same verse of Hamlet. Phrases.org.uk tells us of that:

The allusion of makes your hair stand on end is to the actual sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to cold or to fear. This is otherwise known as ‘goose-flesh’ and the condition is, or rather was, known by the entirely splendid word horripilation. This was defined by Thomas Blount in his equally splendidly named book Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used, 1656.

Horripilation. Love that word. We owe a lot to Shakespeare and the number of phrases of his we still write and speak today is truly astounding.

The Australian News commented on the longevity of Shakespearean phrases more than 400 years later:

Then there is the English language. The debt it owes to Shakespeare (and the slightly later King James Version of the Bible) is incalculable. No English speaker with any pretensions to culture (above that of phone texting or advertising brochures) can avoid using words or expressions that originated with the Bard of Avon. Not bad going for the son of a draper.

Porpentine isn’t one of Shakespeare’s many neologisms, but rather a nonce word: “a linguistic form which a speaker consciously invents or accidentally does on a single occasion.” Or in this situation, a word used rarely (but not singly). Perhaps it’s simply his unique spelling of purpentine.

Shakespeare was, regardless, an unprecedented source of neologisms and nonce words. According to the Oxford Dictionary, some 2,200 words first appear in writing in Shakespeare’s works, and linguist David Crystal says he invented about 1,700 of them. These are aside from the phrases mentioned above.

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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.