At last I
have got my eager logophile’s hands on Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten
English (1997, ISBN 0 688 16636 9), and an extraordinarily absorbing
book it is too.
some people might think that the disappearance of words from the English
language is a pitiful sign of its relentless decay, Kacirk certainly does
English language, like any other living thing, is continually in a state
of flux. Just as cells in our bodies die each day and are replaced with
new ones, an almost imperceptible attrition in vocabulary regularly takes
place, balancing the hundreds of fledgling terms that make their way into
our conversations and dictionaries each year . . .
true of all languages, which grow and decline as result of societal needs
and artistic creation, but it is particularly prevalent in English, the
most dynamic of tongues.
the richness and maturity of a language may be gauged by the volume and
quality of words it can afford to lose. In this regard, English has had no
equal in the sheer volume of expressions it has shed over the centuries.
These lost words, memorials of a language’s earlier stages, form the basis
of Forgotten English.
words, the book is a survey of some words from the past which, as one
reviewer put it, “never quite made it into Modern English”.
wonderful sounds these forgotten words make — nimgimmer, tup-running,
mocteroof, frubbish, grog-blossom, wayzgoose, galligaskin, sockdolager —
are half the fun. Their fabulous meanings, particularly those that seem
inevitable once you learn them, make up the rest.
hundreds of attention-grabbing words Kacirk systematically examines in
obviously fond detail here are four that took my own fancy:
|What’s forgotten about this word is
its 16th century meaning which was “an odd or
inappropriate combination of two or more liquors,
such as ale and wine” (or even beer and
|In the 18th century this meant “to
administer to a horse a suppository made of raw
ginger . . . to make the horse livelier”, usually
when selling the animal. Livelier, indeed.
|A jarkman was a 16th century
“vagabond who used his literary talents
underhandedly”. Able to read and write, some even
knowing Latin, such educated beggars roamed the
countryside selling counterfeit passes, licences and
other certificates with official-looking seals
appended. The word was still in use in the 1830s.
|Again, what’s forgotten here is the
word’s original meaning (in the 18th century) of the
barrel (butt) on a ship from which drinking
water could be scooped (scuttled); thus more
generally “a place for informal conversation”, then
sheer irresistible appeal, both in its resonance and in its meaning, what
can compare with the noun prick-me-dainty? To paraphrase the words of
another reviewer, “how ever did we allow a word like that to escape?”
prick-me-dainty was a 16th century “man-about town who coifed himself in
an overly careful manner, frequently seeking the services of his barber,
and who was . . . ridiculously exact in dress or carriage”. A dandy, in
other words. What Kacirk doesn’t explain, but our ever reliable OED does,
is how the individual parts of the word contributed to its meaning.
prick. One of this verb’s meanings, from the 16th to 19th centuries, was
“to attire . . . with clothes and ornaments fastened by pins, bodkins,
etc.; to attire elaborately”. In this sense, prick is found today only in
dialects. As for dainty, this adjective was used, in the same period, to
refer to persons “possessing or displaying delicate taste, perception, or
sensibility; nice, fastidious, particular; sometimes, over-nice.”
19th century the word prick-me-dainty had acquired a natural adjectival
meaning of “excessively of affectedly precise in personal adornment”, but
the OED has no citations for its use after 1897.
using it, Bikwilians. Spread the word.