Saturday 19 January 2019

Curfuggled by Slurvian?

English, the great mongrel tongue, discards as many words as it embraces

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

There are 24 official languages in the European Union, but only three working tongues: French, English and German. It had been suggested that after Britain quits the EU, English might lose its official status. (Ireland and Malta, though English-speaking, don't claim English as their official language.)

Yet a linguistic academic working in Sweden, Dr Marko Modiano, has predicted that English will be more widely used in the EU after Brexit: with Britain gone, English will become the politically neutral lingua franca of the EU. It will just be 'Euro English', evolving into a mixture of Continental European idioms, with possibly more American spellings and usage.

James Joyce would have approved. He always loved the elasticity of English, and used it brilliantly for his own surreal vocabulary. Joyce's neologisms are "too idiosyncratic" to have passed into the language, according to Paul Anthony Jones, a noted collector of English words which have come and gone over the centuries, though Samuel Beckett's word coinages have done better: he brought us 'pugnozzle' (to move your nose and lips like a pug dog), 'vermigrade' (like a worm) and 'wantum' (a quantifiable deficiency of desire).

Irish has given to English words like 'galore' (from go leor) and 'smithereens' (self-evident), as well as 'cudleigh', meaning 'a gift given as a bribe', from 'cuid oidhche' - literally, an evening portion. And of course many other languages have flowed into the lexicon of English, too.

But Paul Anthony Jones, who runs a language-based Twitter account called @Haggard Hawks, is intrigued by the words that once existed in English, but have been lost or fallen into disuse. 'Translunary' - beyond the moon (probably coined by Galileo); 'transnate' - to swim across, as used by Lord Byron when he swam the four miles across Hellespont in 1810; 'rag-mannered' - bad table manners, from the 17th century; 'twindle' - a twin sibling (early 1500s). 'Spousebreach' was the adultery charge against Anne Boleyn which brought the axe down on her head.

A younger sister or daughter was once called the 'cadette', borrowed from the French in the early 17th century. But then given back to them.

There are lovely words which just got dropped, which Jones catalogues in his yearbook of forgotten words A Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities. 'Breviloquent' - eloquent in pithy speech, as was George Washington's presidential inaugural in 1789. But a long-winded speech was a 'twarvlement', from a Yorkshire dialect.

'Twankle' was to play idly on a musical instrument, from an English dialect dictionary of 1905. 'Pontitecture' - architecture involving designing bridges, coined by a Scotsman in 1853. 'Xenodochy' was hospitality to strangers, dating from 1692, although such actions were recommended by St Paul.

A 17th-century way of describing someone soaked in wine was 'vinomadified'. While Scotch whiskey was once called 'tanglefoot', in the reign of James IV of Scotland (late 1400s), until 'whisky' was born as an Anglicised corruption of the Scots Gaelic 'uisge beatha'. Whisky (or whiskey) had many linguistic incarnations: spunkie, snake juice (mid 1800s), wild-cat (US slang), pinch-bottle.

A pity we lost the beautiful word invented by Thomas Hardy, 'vespering' - to fly westward, as in 'vespers', for 'evening'. And wasn't 'nappishness' - from Herman Melville in the 1830s - a nice description of the tendency to sleep or take a nap?

Charlotte Bronte was once given 'miscounsel' from another writer - bad advice which she didn't take. Yet a useful word. To 'jeopard' came in with the 1300s, but didn't stay, though we have its part of speech with 'jeopardy'. We also lost the 1908 concept of 'beautyhood' - a person at the pinnacle of their physical good looks.

'Insinuendo' appeared at some indeterminate time, and then it went away again: a combination of innuendo and insinuation. Before Ellis Island in the US got its formal name, it was described, in the 1600s, as an 'insulet' - small island.

'Epistolophobia' was another Americanism, referring to the 'fear of receiving letters'. As when manilla envelopes looking like bills or tax demands were stuffed into a biscuit tin until sufficient courage was plucked up to confront them - I know that movie.

Flirting was called 'making sheep's eyes' - I remember my older relations using the phrase in the 1950s. It was officially invoked in the enactment of a puritanical law passed in New York State in 1902, which outlawed flirting with the such 'sheep's eyes', and the law has never been formally rescinded.

Yet a prudish person was described as a 'blue nose', a disparaging 19th-century nickname for a strict Presbyterian.

'Curfuggle' was a confused mess or a disorder, from an old Scots dialect. 'Slurvian' was nonsense speech used in America in the 1940s. 'Scugways' was to do something in a secretive manner, coined in the 1930s.

Words come and words go. Their appearance and disappearance are the signs of a living lingo.


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