Sunday, October 5, 2008

On words that need a comeback

You don't carry in your countenance a letter of recommendation. Charles Dickens

Jan: Everybody always writes about the overused words or phrases that irritate them. Lately, I've been collecting the underused ones that fell out of fashion. I'd like to see these make a comeback.

Countenance: The general impression given by the facial features. Kind of a mix of appearance and what today we might call aura. But it hints at intrepretation of the observer, rather than an energy emitted from the observed.

Fortnight: In Charles Dicken's and Jane Austen novels, everyone always goes away for a fortnight. What an economical way to say a two-week period. Why not use it? As in, I clean my house fortnightly!

Coupling: One of the nicest euphemisms for having sex, and a whole lot better than the much cruder term we overuse today. Wouldn't it be great if rappers converted to the use of Mothercoupler?
Singular: Big favorite of Somerset Maugham. I remember looking it up when I read one of his collections because he used it in pretty much every short story. The first definition is separate, individual, but Maugham used it to mean deviating strongly from the norm. Along the lines of extraordinary.
Physiognomy: -A favorite term of Sherlock Holmes if I remember correctly. It means judging human character from facial features, which fell out of favor for good reason. It was biased against anyone non-white or unattractive. But if you read Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, you know that we still unconsciously assess people this way. So why not use the correct term for it -- if only to define it as a flawed human practice.
Strumpet: A much nicer way to say slut. It seems to imply a certain amount of flair --- or maybe musical ability.
Malarky: So much better to be full of than bologney or worse.
Come on, if you think about it, there are lots of these. We can force them into everyday conversation and make it a mission.
HALLIE: Oh, Jan, get thee to a library and check out H. L. Mencken's "The American Language" (1921). You and Mencken would have been soulmates. He was chronicling how American-English was diverging from English-English, and doing so with his own particular brand of wit.

In the book, you'll find a plethora(!) of colorful terms and their origins--like palooka, belly-laugh, and high-hat. And mourn colorful terms that have faded like infanticipating (expecting), shafts (legs), and Reno-vated (contemplating divorce).

JAN: Oh, I forgot about high-hat. I'm reading Millers Crossing, from the Coen brothers screenplay collection. The setting is Chicago during the prohibition years and the gangsters repeatedly use high-hat, as in "you were giving me the high hat." The uppity, condescending blow off.

RO: I love throwing in an underused word or expression every once in a while and watching the faces. Has she lost it? Is she that old? Hallie, I actually used Reno-vated yesterday! (Shades of the orginal Women, come-a ti-yi-yippee!)
Of the Damon Runyon-type words I like malarky and hooey, but really prefer the Brit-sounding (is it?) balderdash. I vote for strumpet or hussey over the all-too-popular slut. Even twelve year-olds are calling each other that.
Let's see...brouhaha...that's a good one...what else..I may need a cuppa joe first...

ROBERTA: yes, love brouhaha--I still use that one. and how about "rhubarb," as in "What a rhubarb!"

JAN: What a rhubarb? I never hard that before. Is that a Minnesota-ism, like Holy Buckets? And what is a rhubarb anyway? A jokester?

HANK: A rhubarb is a dustup, right? I like piffle. As in oh, piffle. And I just read about the word "wifty," which is like ditzy and fey. All three of those are lovely.

JAN: Piffle and wifty can double as excellent names for puppies and kittens.
It seems there are just so many useful words and slangs benched before their time. Please come tell us your favorites.


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  2. I know there was just a big rhubarb about the most recent words to be snuffed from the latest version of some dictionary. I was googling around to find what they were, and came across an article from 2003 about the words to be dumped that year.

    "That time around, according to Merriam-Webster's Wilkinson, the 11th edition bounced not just snollygoster but also microcopy, microreader, microreproduction, record changer, portapak, pantdress, pocket-handkerchief, poke bonnet, vitamin G, lantern pinion, frutescent, impudicity, wool stapler, long play, retirant, sheep-dip, ten-cent store and traffic manager."

    A few hundred more, too, but according to the article, "nobody keeps a special list."

    Ten-cent store was particularly poignant, as I used to work in one. And we still call the guy who handles the ad rotation at Channel 7 the traffic manager. I think.

    Did anyone read the newest article? I'm going back to find it, but I may be snollygostered by work. Whatever that means.

  3. Love rhubarb..not the vegetable, the word. Did you know that the leaves are poisonous? guys are mystery writers..
    I'm not going to miss any of the words on that list, Hank, except maybe pocket hankerchief. I have a vintage hankie collection.
    Did we mention hoi-polloi?

  4. yes a rhubarb is a dust-up Jan, like Hank said. I heard it from a friend's mother back in college as she described a fight over a shopping cart at the local grocery store.

  5. Great topic! I'm partial to X-prandial: preprandial sherry, postprandial nap, and I had a friend who always stepped out for an intraprandial cigarette. Also slovenly is a good one not to lose, and I am fond of using disambiguate in conversation (once an academic, always an academic?). Perambulate is much more fun than go for a walk. Actually, reading Beatrix Potter provides SO many good words. I also like to keep the old proverbs alive: "Waste not, want not," "A penny saved is a penny earned," and so on, although they definitely cause raised eyebrows in the teen/young adult set!

  6. Hi Edith,

    I had to look up prandial -- which for others as in-the-dark as me, means relating to a meal. But now that I know it, will have to start incorporating it. I agree with you on slovenly - perfectly descriptive!

  7. Well, I like bloviate. And occasionally, I like TO bloviate, but right now Maverick is much on my mind, gosh darn it!

  8. I'm rather fond of the word "fop." Let;s bring that one back!

    And if it was possible to include the word Gazpacho into more narratives, I'd do it. I just love to say it aloud. Go ahead. Try it!