The linguistic department at University of York, after months of painstaking research, has discovered more than two dozen words which have gone out of fashion, but which, they feel, have so much relevance to the current times that they ought to make a comeback.
Talking of the times we live in, in the UK, one might be tempted to ask whether it is wise to spend tax-payers’ money on a bunch of linguists who bury their noses for months in historical texts and old dictionaries, and come up with a list of strange sounding words, which no one has used in the previous two centuries, and which, should you use them in your day-to-day discourse, would invite incomprehensible looks from the listener. But that, I should guess, would be Philistine. I know a man who is employed by the local council as an expert in medieval graffiti on the walls of the churches and cathedrals in the county. For the last few years he is threatening to publish a book on the subject which, he insists, is cruelly neglected and is not in the consideration of hoi polloi, their minds addled by the latest gizmos, carb-rich food, politics, holidays, music, clothes—anything that is not mediaeval graffiti. The guy is the most dyspeptic, self-martyred, whingeing person who ever breathed (and these are his good qualities), but he has, I feel obliged to point out, a point. We all should have a higher reason for existence, shouldn’t we? It can’t be about Apple X, holiday to Tenerife, watching gruesome medical dramas on television, and night-outs with your mates, waking up the next day with your knickers round your ankles (or over your head).
The chief investigator of the linguistic project, one Dr Watt (probably not a real doctor) said, “As professional linguists and historians of English we were intrigued by the challenge of developing a list of lost words that are still relevant to modern life, and that we could potentially campaign to bring back into modern day language.”
I am with the good doctor (real or not) Watt on this. These days, campaigns seem not to be about higher pursuits. They are about mundane issues: campaign against homelessness, campaign for the victims of tragedies—natural or man-made, campaigns for the rights of various oppressed and ill-treated minorities, campaign against Israel (usually outside M & S, where you see beardy types with placards, advising you to boycott Israeli avocados, as if that is going to make the Israelis vacate Gaza), campaign to increase the already-overinflated salaries of public sector workers (they are so special), campaign against Brexit, campaign for Brexit, campaign to keep the libraries in Norfolk open, campaign for free tai-chi lessons for the geriatrics, so on and so forth. Where is the charm in that? Campaign to bring back words which, if you start using them, will make people worry you have gone soft in the head—that’s what I want to see. It is regrettable that art has to convince people that they need it (the mediaeval graffiti expert is a case in point), whereas it is taken for granted that the bloody NHS, the bloody Fire Services, and the bloody police are bloody indispensable, and people bloody well can’t do without them. It is unfair. Wouldn’t you prefer art to life? In life you are surrounded by bores and rogues and schmucks. Life is littered with mistakes, accidents, regrets and the eventual (inevitable) despair. You may start your life with whatever ideology, you are going to end up damaged, disillusioned, and more bitter than the lemon I squeezed in my gin last night. Art, on the other hand, is interesting, satisfying and entertaining. And, if it isn’t, well, you can discard it and take up another one. Can you do that with your life? To paraphrase Logan Pearsall Smith, people say life is the thing but I prefer campaigning for lost words rediscovered by the linguists in York. You would be hard put to find a more campaign-worthy object than “a list of lost word that are still relevant to modern life.”
Such pursuits are, in some ways, very middle-class. Nothing wrong in that; not everyone is capable of finding relaxation and enjoyment in shouting racist chants at football matches. If you are the type who finds fulfilment from knowing about, say, the manifold similarities (and differences) amongst the multitudes of translations of The Odyssey, or whether Robespierre really kept his eyes open as the guillotine rushed towards his neck, or from spotting the wrong use of the subjunctive (and the correct use of synecdoche), I have no doubt that you will find that knowing obscure words from the past, newly discovered by experts at York University, is a life-enriching prospect.
I don’t want to be labelled a momist (if you want to know what this word means, you will have to read this post till the bitter end), and I offer my unhesitating support to the linguistic project taken on by the folk at York University. Ferreting out words and phrases long since fallen into disuse (probably for good reason) is a very worthy activity. In terms of providing entertainment, it may not overwhelm you with excitement, true, but none of us can cope with (or even wish for) hair-raising psychedelic experiences all the time, can we? Once in a while a quiet, relaxing day on the massage-table of Basel hot-spring resort is what we need.
So what are the words the linguists from York University have found?
One that immediately caught my attention was ‘betrump’. Apparently it means ‘to cheat’ or ‘to deceive’. It may remain topical, as Dr Watt confidently predicts, for the next couple of years, at least.
There are, I noticed, quite a few words in the list, which throw into relief the baser instincts of humans.
A ‘quacksilver’ is a person who dishonestly claims knowledge of medicine, and spreads false cures.
‘Coney-catch’ is not a noun. It is a verb with roughly the same meaning as ‘betrump’. If you have been ‘coney-catched’ (or is it ‘coney-caught’?) you have been duped. Deceived. Swindled. Cheated. Betrumped. And you would be well within your rights to describe this person to the police as a ‘nicum’ (except that they won't have a clue what you are on about).
Some of the words in the list are in usage today, but, looks like, in the bygone days, these words had very different meanings. ‘Teen’ was a verb and its meaning was ‘to vex’ or ‘to irritate’ (I can see the links between the current and the past use of the word). A ‘Percher’ was not an object for a bird to alight on; a ‘percher’ was a person who aspired for a higher rank or status.
I liked ‘Tremblable’, which means ‘causing horror or dread’, and ‘Sillytonian’, which means a dunce.
What is a slug-a-bed? A slug-a-bed is a person who spends long time in bed through nothing other than laziness.
‘Rouzy-Bouzy’, meaning ‘noisily and boisterously drunk’, is another word that might find its way into current usage, without requiring a campaign.
I was surprised to see a word in this list of ‘lost words’ which I knew the meaning of: ‘Hugger-mugger’, which means doing something clandestinely, or in secrecy.
I thoroughly enjoyed going through the list of ‘lost words’. Even if you think this is exactly the kind of nonsense for which Lenin shot the bourgeoisie after the Bolshevik revolution, I suggest you give it a go and join the campaign of Dr Watt, in the spirit of hyper-conformism. Who knows, you might start enjoying it.
Momist: a person who has a special talent for finding faults.