Let's resurrect some rare language gems

GRANT SHIMMIN
Last updated 13:30 10/03/2014
dictionary

WORDS: Words come and go from our languages. Use them or lose them folks, or I might get grumpish.

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Grant Shimmin

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It was hard to eat with him sitting opposite me.

He said he'd just stopped for a chat after spotting me through the cafe window as he walked to work, but he kept groaking me the whole time he sat there. Between that and his relentless twattling, my appetite quickly waned.

I suppose I shouldn't complain, though. I've been meaning to go on a diet, because I'm well on the way to being a right jollux. So he may have helped me to get started.

Just a little scene I dreamed up. No truth in it, except perhaps for the penultimate sentence, and as I examine it, I see I've managed to get a complete contradiction into the opening paragraph. Somewhat beef-witted of me, that was.

As you'll have gathered, I'm back in the realm of words, one of my favourite places to let my mind go wandering. Specifically, I'm back to great words we no longer use, because a fellow word lover has shared with me, via the website mommyhasapottymouth.com, another list of those cracking constructions of characters that have clocked out.

Some I've read before, while others, like the four I've already used here, are new to me, and several make me wonder why we don't use them anymore. Perhaps they're hard to get into a text, or a tweet. Some would take up a fair proportion of the 140-character limit on Twitter, and it's quite tough to think of ways to abbreviate them for text purposes. Those receiving texts can hardly be held responsible for not recognising them if they didn't know the words in the first place.

But then they come from a simpler time, technologically speaking, when, it seems, words somehow had more impact in their own right, and thus were allowed to be more complex.

"Sir, I insist you refrain from lounging about all day. Get up, you slubberdegullion, I am grown grumpish at your laziness. One might think you were fuzzled.

"Get back to your responsibilities and show some gumption, man, don't be a quockerwodger doing the bidding of that cockalorum!"

It strikes me that that message, contained in a letter, would, in its day, have been of more impact than a series of abbreviations in a text would now, but then language is dynamic, it has to change. Just every so often, though, it seems apt to consider what we've left behind as newly created words like "selfie" find their way into our dictionaries.

By the way, I was going to take a selfie of me working on this column to illustrate it, but I decided against it. I had to have a new passport photograph taken this week, and it seems that when I adopt the requisite neutral expression (no smiling or frowning), as I would while working, I suffer from what some young people these days refer to as "bitchy resting face".

Of course, we've probably let go of much simpler words than those mentioned here, or they've moved into more modern forms. I guess they're not quite as interesting as the complex ones that tend to feature on these lists, so don't rate an appearance.

It did strike me, while reading the meanings of these historic words, that what's often seen as a modern tendency, to use words to express the polar opposite of their original meaning, might have its origins in history.

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Most readers will have heard the word "sick" being used to refer to something good.

"That was a sick ride, dude," a surfer or snowboarder might be told by his watching mates.

In that spirit, see if you can figure out what this sentence means: "I say, old chap, that was a monsterful effort." Something bad, underwhelming, given the use of the word monster?

In fact, it means wonderful or extraordinary. Sick to think history may just be repeating itself.

So it remains for me to reveal the answers. Not that I told you this was a quiz, but I left those nine words hanging. I thought you might enjoy trying to figure out their meanings first. Maybe not, but if you hung in there, here they are, courtesy of the aforementioned website:

■ Groaking - To silently watch someone eating, hoping to be invited to join them.

■ Twattle - To gossip, or talk idly. Now you understand the contradiction, which I honestly only spotted after writing the paragraph.

■ Jollux - a fat person. In this context, me.

■ Beef-witted - Stupid, imbecilic. It strikes me that it's implied one gets this way from eating too much red meat.

■ Slubberdegullion - this almost explains itself, in my view. It means a slovenly, slobbering person.

■ Grumpish - not surprisingly, an alternative form of grumpy.

■ Fuzzled - you guessed it, drunk. Forerunner of sozzled, perhaps?

■ Quockerwodger - hopefully the sentence helps here; a puppet.

■ Cockalorum - the beginnings of the concept of 'short man syndrome'? Not sure, but it means a small man with a high opinion of himself. I'm not being sexist, that's what it said. One might require a different word for a small woman holding said high opinion.

If you managed to get a few of those right, give yourself a pat on the back. No prizes, I'm afraid, just self-satisfaction.

That and the joy of having a few new words to throw into conversation, especially if you're trying to confuse someone. Let's get out there and use them, folks, or we'll lose them all over again.

- The Timaru Herald

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