Resurrecting Words Over a Cup of Chatter-Broth*

chatter-broth (3)English is an ever-evolving language. The rules change; new words are born; established words shift meaning; neglected words die.

Recently, we’ve seen stories on the expanding definition of “literally,” which has become a Janus-word, and on the expanding definition of “marriage,” with the Oxford English Dictionary now recognizing same-sex unions.

As someone who isn’t ashamed to admit to perusing the dictionary from time to time (whatever you happen to think “peruse” means these days), I decided to pick up Jeffrey Kacirk’s The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Ever Forgotten, which is a handpicked glossary of retired or nearly retired terms. While I would have liked a meatier etymological history to explain the usage of these archaic terms, this book turned out to be an ideal choice for me because I’ve been so ramfeezled** that I’ve had no time to read anything more complicated than dictionary entries. Plus, a compilation of dead or dying words is certainly more interesting than picking up the latest Merriam-Webster.

Kacirk explains in the introduction, “The English language… continues to expand, absorbing hundreds of words annually into its official and unofficial roles, but not without a simultaneous yet imperceptible sacrifice of terms along the way.” I wouldn’t quite say that we’ve “sacrifice[d]” the archaic words that appear in this book; these words disappeared solely because they were no longer relevant, and sometimes for good reason. For example, some words were no longer necessary as we expanded civil rights and improved medical practices.

We should feel lucky that we no longer need labels for some of the atrocious practices of our past (such as practices related to the view of women as the property of either their fathers or their husbands). For example, maiden-rent, which is actually an improvement over the custom it replaced, means exactly what it sounds like: “A [fee] paid by every tenant in the [English] manor… at their marriage; it was anciently given to the lord for his omitting the custom of marcheta, whereby… he was to have the first night’s lodging with his tenant’s wife.”

In other cases, it’s hard to imagine how some of these words have fallen out of favor, not that ethically-flexible Scrabble players aren’t trying their hardest to resuscitate them for a triple-word score. I think many of us have had an experience like this, either as the one saying it or the one on the receiving end: what do you mean monsterful isn’t a word? Chaucer and highfalutin “critics with credentials” have used it!***

Here are a few of my favorite obsolete words in Kacirk’s book:

  •         Abracadabrant: “Marvelous or stunning”

  •         Aquabob: “An icicle”

  •         Bibliothecary: “Keeper of a library”

  •         Clapperclaw: “To scold”

  •         Errorist: “One of errs”

  •         Fleshquake: “A tremor of the body”

  •         Flesh-tailor: “A surgeon”

  •         Grimgribber: “A lawyer” [kind of makes sense, no?]

  •         Miscomfrumple: “To rumple, crease”

  •         Missucceed: “To turn out ill” [this sounds like a “Bushism”]

  •         Wordify: “To put into words”

In an article this month, The Atlantic Wire has recommended that “preservationist types should use [dead or dying words] whenever possible.” The article points out that this strategy has had some limited success, but there are drawbacks to such efforts. In particular, confused listeners and readers may end up being a bit begrumpled by it.****  See what I mean? 😉

*Chatter-broth and scandal-broth meant “tea” (slang). Ninny-broth meant “coffee” (slang). These terms seem to reflect stereotypes about women and men.

**Ramfeezled meant “To exhaust oneself with work, to wear oneself out.”

***The author of the Salon.com article linked above is the same guy who equates book bloggers with leeches because we don’t have “credentials.” Following his analogy, I guess that would make WordPress and Blogger gill-gatherers, which meant “one[s] who gather[] leeches.”

****Begrumpled meant “displeased.”

23 thoughts on “Resurrecting Words Over a Cup of Chatter-Broth*

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  6. Loved the post and the tongue in cheek undertone prevailing throughout.

    I realise that for any language to prosper, it needs to retain the ability to absorb new words and nuances. But I for one still prefer the Queen’s English…….

    Shakti

    1. Thank you! I try to keep an open mind about our evolving language, but there are certain meanings of words that I have difficulty accepting. For example, I cringe whenever I hear “literally” used to mean “figuratively,” and “peruse” will never mean “to skim” to me. It’s a losing battle, though!

  7. Great fun AMB, so much better than charging time 🙂 I doubt some of these older words actually made it across the Atlantic, unlike many other words which America has changed and made simpler.

    1. I imagine you’re right that some of these words never made it across the Atlantic. A few in the book are definitely American in origin, but I believe most are from old UK dialects.

  8. Sounds like a fun read. I used to do Dictionary.com’s word of the day texts. Sometimes you’d get a good word like flibbertigibbet (a gossip). I’m sure someday this will drop out of the lexicon too, but it makes me sad. I like those kinds of words.

    1. Yes, we should bring “monsterful” back and it can certainly mean “full of monsters” if that’s how we choose to use it! As for Giraldi, he’s such a haggersnash (to use a term from Kacirk’s book).

  9. Oh, what delicious words. I’m adding this book to my “find and read” list. 🙂 I love old dis-used words…some of them have this antiquated sound to them, and conjurer up the time for which they were in common usage.

    1. I hope you enjoy it! It’s definitely an interesting read, though I wish it had provided more information about the usage and origin of the words. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Great list, there was this one website that I came across once that was like a dictionary/thesaurus for words like these. Wish I could remember what it was but the title is also one of these words and it was long!

    1. That website serves as an example of why it’s unwise to start using these terms again (as much as I’d love to see “degrumpled” make a come back!). Many people wouldn’t know what we’re talking about, and those that do aren’t likely to remember the words later! Thanks for the comment.

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