Monday, November 15, 2010

Etymology Monday: Oft-Overlooked Words

The English language really is a magnificent beast, with a word-hoard full of treasures. Some are simply the perfect word for a feeling, conveying in a neat package concepts and circumstances other languages take paragraphs to describe: wistful and awkward come to mind. Others are beautiful: lucent, tranquility, mellifluous, susurrous, celadon, nevermore. Today, though, I want to look at the oddities-- quirky, fun-loving words that never get to shine anymore.

Let's start with one of my favorites: tatterdemalion. The OED has this as "a person in tattered clothing; a ragged, beggarly fellow." (Have I mentioned in the past fifteen minutes how much I love reading the OED?) Surely this word is more useful than ever, given the proliferation of hipsters in thrift-store clothing wearing hobo beards. They'd probably love this word. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before there's a neo-slowcore band called Tatterdemalion.

Another delight is addle-pated, which I learned from a poem by Jack Prelutsky called "The Addle-Pated Paddlepuss," a magnificent creature which could play ping-pong with its head. "Addle" came from Old English "adela," meaning "stinking urine," and an "addle-egg" was an egg which had gone rotten before fully hatching. "Pate," of uncertain origin, is a Middle English term for the head or crown; thus, an addle-pated fellow is someone whose brain died in the hatching. Our addle-pated fellow probably often finds his thoughts jargogled, an obsolete term meaning jumbled or confused. He should be careful whom he trusts, however, lest he find himself a victim of pettifoggery-- "legal chicanery or trickery, quibbling" or other tanglesome ways.

Many of the best words, of course, are now completely obsolete. Try bringing back words such as forswunk ("exhausted with labor"), darg ("a day's work, the task of a day; also, a defined quantity or amount of work, or of the product of work, done in a certain time or at a certain rate of payment"), or eftsoons (which means, astonishingly, any of the following: a second time, moreover, likewise, quasi-, soon afterwards, occasionally, as soon as, repeatedly.) Or you could call your grandparents eldmother and eldfather and refer to your tobacco as drunkwort. (This may, however, raise questions about exactly what sort of drunkwort you are smoking.)

Going even further back in Anglo-Saxon history, we have kennings, the lovely evocative compounds which make Old English poetry so beautiful.  A small translated sampling: slaughter-dew (blood), flame-farewelled (an honorable death), swansroad (sea), sun-table (sky). As you might expect, some of the prettiest ones are the most violent: the body as bonehouse, the sword as the wound-wolf, the shield as the Viking's-moon. Slip some of these into conversation, or make up your own. English is an amazingly combinatory and lexically wealthy language, full of gorgeous history-rich words that usually are relegated to the thick dictionaries with the onionskin paper. Let's take some of these out of the box and play with them, hmm?


Posted by Silent Five @ 10:12 PM

Word of the Week

gymnosophy [jim-NAH-so-fee]

n. Philosophical, amusing, or nonsensical insights realized when naked, as in the shower or in bed. (recent coinage: att. S. Galasso, 2010)

Victoria and Albert enjoyed a spot of postprandial concupiscence culminating in a night of gymnosophy and coffee and crumpets at dawn.

The Silent Top Five: Bacon-Flavored Desserts

1) Bacon cheesecake.
2) Bacon gumballs.
3) Bacon ice cream.
4) Bacon-orange bars.
5) Bacon apple pie.

Standard Disclaimer

This is all in no way meant to incur copyright-infringement-related wrath. I'm harmless. I promise. Oh, and if you're offended by anything I may post herein, I guarantee I didn't mean to do so (unless, of course, you are a humorless prig. In which case, go right on and be offended, with my blessings.)