Time to rescue those useful old words from the dustbin

Mark Forsyth’s ambitions are modest – he says his books about English words aim to make us spend more time in the loo. Sheena Hastings reports.

MARK Forsyth has a way with words, as in championing words that have been forgotten or retired thanks to the march of time. He takes wonderful bons mots and finds the connections between them, excavating how history has moulded, bent and twisted expressions beyond their original meaning.

He says of his latest offering, The Horologicon: “It is for the words too beautiful to live long, too amusing to be taken seriously, too precise to become common, too vulgar to surive in polite society, or too poetic to thrive in this age of prose.”

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Forsyth digs terms that have for too long been hidden in dictionaries such as A Glossary of Words Used in The Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, or the Descriptive Dictionary and Atlas of Sexology (a book that does actually contain maps), the Dictionary of Obsolete or Provincial English and, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Horologicon and its older sibling The Etymologicon, his Christmas 2011 bestselling odyssey – or rather a witty, circular walk – through the English language invite us to follow his entertaining and enlightening trail. His are the best examples of books that fall happily into that recently coined genre ‘edutainment’.

He says he’s not particularly qualified to do what he does, but just loves words, and the stranger the better. His obession with them and where they come from leads him to coin many a quotable quote, such as “...reality changes words far more than words can ever change reality”. He says he’s perfectly happy that his books will mostly be read in the loo.

Before he could stand or speak he was given a copy of the OED as a christening present, so the auguries were there for a living made from language. After a degree in English from Oxford, he took “...any job I could get with words – copywriting, ghost writing, doing those little blurbs for TV programmes in magazines and newspapers... and trying to write novels”.

Three years ago he started a blog called Inky Fool, a must for anyone who wonders where words come from and how they relate to each other. At a party he later drunkenly accosted a publisher, suggesting the site was the basis for an entertaining book.

The Horlogicon – A Day’s Jaunt Through Lost Words of the English Language is, like the last one, a product of the blog. It runs from ‘uhtceare’ (sadness or worry before dawn) to ‘curtain lecture’ (a telling off given by your 
spouse in bed). and sets out wonderful words that have in the past been used to describe happenings at a certain time of day.

Once dawn is safely over, you might recover and feel quite ‘matutinal’ (bright in the morning) – although Oscar Wilde once said that only dull people are brilliant at breakfast. Some of us can’t face early morning, and would rather lie until the last moment in a state of ‘zwodder’– a drowsy and stupid state of body and mind.

If you are suffering the morning after the night before, then you might answer a ‘How are you?’ with ‘philogrobolized’ – meaning hungover, without ever having to utter the word. And if yours is gargantuan, you might call and give the boss your ‘egrote’ – feigning of sickness – while ‘whindling’ – faking groaning noises.

If the boss insists that you name your illness, you could stun him/her with ‘hum durgeon’ which – unless they are fluent in 18th century slang – they will never know means an imaginary illness.

Those who aren’t throwing a sickie will hop out of bed and get on with the day, ‘jenticulating’ (having breakfast), travelling to work through ‘swale’ (windy, cold, bleak) or ‘thwankin’ (thick/gloomy clouds) weather and perhaps using their ‘bumbershoot’ (umbrella) and maybe sporting a ‘Golgotha’ (hat).

When it comes to meetings, the English language has or has had a word for every situation. My favourite from The Horologicon is ‘ultracrepidarianism’ i.e. giving opinions on subjects that you know nothing about. The other great skill for meetings is that of being ‘nod crafty’ – knowing when to nod at the right time when someone talks for too long – while your mind is completely elsewhere and you would really prefer to nod off.

Mark Forsyth believes we should rescue some of these useful words from the linguistic dustbin. “Never mind the puzzled looks, just use them. Throw them into conversation as often as possible.”

The Horologicon by Mark Forsyth is published by Icon Books, £12.99.