Forgotten English
[ Issue 19 ]

'Forgotten English' captivates Emily Bronto

Bikwil celebrates 'Forgotten English'

Forgotten English

In this issue Harlish Goop devotes his language column to a review of Jeffrey Kacirk's Forgotten English.

Dead words worth reviving.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


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.

While some people might think that the disappearance of words from the English language is a pitiful sign of its relentless decay, Kacirk certainly does not:

The 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 . . .

Change is 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.

In fact, 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.

In other 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”.

Another wrote:

The 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.

Of the 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 butter-milk).


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 later “gossip”.

But for 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?”

A 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.

First, 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.”

By the 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.

Start using it, Bikwilians. Spread the word.

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