Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On Language: Word extinction

JAN BROGAN - There's nothing like a little historical research to illuminate how much the English language has changed.

Not that I'm against a changing language.  The Linguistic Society of America tells us that only dead languages stay the same. As well as that we should go ahead and split infinitives if we want to because the rule against them was based on one guy's decision in 1600 that English should more closely mimic Latin.
But I digress. 

 Despite my recognition that language should change, I'm here to mourn the loss of a words that were really cool in the 1800s or even a few decades ago. Words I want to bring back, and have people text on their cell phones, or post on Facebook.  Words I just  like for some completely irrational reason.

Obliged: I think I've talked about "obliged" before.  But I just love that word. I am obliged to you.  It signifies much more than simple thanks. I pretty much means I AM COMPLETELY AWARE THAT I OWE YOU FOR THIS. All in just a single word.

Regulating:  In the 19th century, women didn't just clean their houses or their bedrooms. They cleaned and regulated them.  Regulated meant putting them back in order, but I like the power it implies. It gives the person stuck with doing the work a bit of military control.  They don't just shuffle things around, they REGULATE them.

Commenced:  You didn't so much begin cooking dinner, as you commenced cooking dinner. And other people commenced doing things for you. There is no real reason I like this better than "begin," I just think it makes the action's start somehow more official.

Forenoon:  Why can't we bring back forenoon?  It actually means all of morning, betweeen sunrise and lunch, but I think it's a perfect way to describe late morning. Like right before lunch. And while we are at it:  why not bring back... 

Fortnight: There is no other one-word description for a 14-day period that I know of, so why say two-weeks when you can say fortnight?  

Rugged:  I like how they used to use rugged to describe the weather or the sea. As in the weather was rugged this morning.  Now rugged seems destined only to describe men who have those perpetual five o'clock shadows and look off toward prairies or oceans or maybe football fields.

Vexatious:  Why use vexing when you could use vexatious - which clearly spits out your meaning all the more emphatically. In the 1800s, though, they spelled it vexacious.

Countenance:  What a perfect way to get at, not just what a person looks like physically, but what aura they are giving off. I first came across this word when I read in Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham.  Then I noticed it appeared frequently in nearly all of his short stories.  That and "singular." But his use of singular always left me with a fuzzy understanding of what he was trying to say, where countenance was just perfect.

Ignominious: It's not that this word has disappeared from our vocabulary yet -- it's just that I really like it a lot and it does seem to be fading (you'd think everyone would be calling everyone else ignominious in an election year). So I think, in a effort to keep it in use, we should all apply it liberally, as in those ignominious paparazzi who took poor Kate's topless pictures. And those doctors, priests, camp counselors who keep getting caught with child pornography. And more recently, those replacement refs in the NFL.  (Was anyone else outraged by the shameful calling of the Patriots/Ravens game?)

 Imagine my delight when I googled lost words and found others in the universe who also pine (another great verb ) for good words gone by.  At Wayne State University, they have made a mission of it, and even allow you to vote for words that need to be resurrected or protected --  like dinosaurs or piping plovers. Here's a list of the top vote getters in lost words:  http://wordwarriors.wayne.edu/2011/index.php

So Reds, you can vote officially there, http://wordwarriors.wayne.edu/submit.php or you can vote unofficially here. Tell us favored words or expressions that we must keep from extinction.

And come back tomorrow, when our own Edith Maxwell guest posts about how when bad things can lead to great things!   Her first mystery, Speaking of Murder,  out on shelves now! 


  1. Oh, what a great post! I love words . . . here are a few I’d vote to bring back into use:

    a frisson of fear . . . a precipitous [hasty or reckless] decision . . . equivocate . . . kerfuffle [commotion] . . . copasetic [completely satisfactory] . . . .

    calamistrate/calamistration [curling the hair] . . . .

    disquisition [diligent, systematic search, a thorough investigation] . . . .

    children excel at dactylonomy, that is, counting on the fingers . . . .

    But my all-time favorite is:
    defenestrate, that is, to throw out of a window . . . not to be confused with interfenestration, which pertains to the space between two windows [and isn’t “pertains” a great word, too?]

  2. Wow, my worlds are converging. Jan mentions the LSA, my former professional society, in the second paragraph!

    Joan, I also love defenestrate.

    I am personally fond of preprandial and postprandial. "She offered me a preprandial glass of sherry." "After downing seconds on pumpkin pie, I was obliged to indulge in a postprandial nap." Heck, a friend in grad school used to take an intraprandial cigarette break!

    (See how I snuck "obliged" in, too, Jan?)

  3. Remember the Bobbsey Twins? I learned a word in those books. Their maid (I think it was the maid; maybe the mother) always stood in the doorway with arms akimbo. I had to look it up and it's a word rarely heard or read these days.

    My all-time favorite word is sesquipedalian. I was in a training course many years and we had to write a module to teach someone the use of this word. It means using large words when shorter ones will do. It's such a cool word and I've been trying to incorporate it into conversations for over 30 years. It doesn't fit easily.

    And ubiquitous is another great word.

    What a great topic for writers - and readers - who depend on words.

  4. Parsimonious, when stingy just won't do.

    Obfuscate, which is apropos for this election year, meaning to cloud the issue.

    Eschew, to deliberately avoid.

    Thereby (also a good word, along with "moreover") creating one of my favorite sayings: Eschew obfuscation.

  5. Yes, Joan, I love "frisson" too. A great word for that physical ripple of feeling that runs with emotion. When I was a kid, everyone in my family, had this gesture of excitement that we all did - sort of a wave of both hands very close to the face. My friends, who didn't know the word frisson, made up the word "shinkle," for it. Imagine my excitement later to learn it had a more official name.

    Dactylonomy, I love it. How do you use defenstrate? I defenestrated the laundry?

    Edith, prandial must mean dinner or meal, huh? Love it.

    AND EVERYONE - Come back tomorrow to catch Edith's guest post on Jungle Red!!

  6. Oh Karen, I love eschew and obfuscate and actually use them a lot still, just because they are so great,, or maybe because I am a...

    sesquipedalian?. Marianne it is a great word, but is it a noun or a verb. Am I a sesquipedalian, or have i just sesquipedlianed? .

  7. I'm sorry. Sesquipedalian is an adjective. "Her book contained sesquipedalian prose." Or "He delivered a sesquipedalian keynote address."

  8. I am irked when persons confuse biweekly, bimonthly, and fortnightly.

  9. Jerry,

    Which is why I never use those words. I can never remember if bimonthly is twice a month, or every other month. And is biweekly, twice a week, or every two weeks.

    Fortnightly, now that's crystal clear in my 19th century mind.

    Marianne, so I tend to be a sesquipedalian speaker? Now I just have to get the spelling right.


  10. Or semi-weekly!

    No one but a Martian would use the captcha words. "nditbled"? No wonder we all have such a tough time with these.

  11. Jan,
    I've heard both obliged (as in much obliged) and commenced (it commenced to rain) used in speech here in rural western Maine. To misquote slightly: they're not dead yet!

  12. I must move to western Maine,

    Karen i dont know whats going on with capssha. Sometimes i cant even read them. Take a wild stab and it goes thru. Sometimes I thinknim getting it perfectly and im wrongbthree times in a row

    Can youbtell im on the ipad now?

  13. Oooh, I love these! (And I admit, I still use many of them, to the confusion of some people around me.) I would add betwixt--I love the idea of betwixt and between! Eschew, frisson, kerfuffle (a favorite, for sure). . .love them! Disquisition was a new one for me, but I'll have to work that in. Thanks for a great post!

  14. I started to vote on that list and then realized I could spend all day looking at cool words like kerfluffle and brouhaha...

  15. Love, love this post, Jan! I'm such a word buff, and I agree with your wish to return these words to usage.

    I'm so bad that I must confess I've used every word on the university's list in the last month, except "parlous," "transmogrify," and "truckle." In Shakespeare's day, the average person had a much larger vocabulary than the modern American with a college degree. I think that's been a huge loss. It's why kids reading Shakespeare now need a gloss on it almost as much as on Chaucer (which was actually written in Middle English). I've had students complain even about Jane Austen that the language is too obscure.

  16. I hear Aussies using "fortnight" all the time. It isn't dying out there!

    I love defenestrate! I can think of plenty of ways to use it. Such as, "When she caught her boyfriend cheating on her, she defenestrated all of his belongings--including his laptop." lol

  17. Frisson! Love it -- just used it last week, but only in my notes, knowing I'd have to take it out of the ms. itself, lest the book be defenestrated as sesquepedalian rubbish.

    Love "lest" and "rubbish," too!

    What fun!

    And yes, I too would like to defenestrate captcha some days ... .

  18. One of my favorite words, rarely heard any longer, is "askew". The on line dictionary I checked said it dates back to 1567. The same dictionary said that the word has a 20 percent lookup rate on their site. I think I will look it up about once an hour for the rest of the day.

    My brother-in-law is very involved in the Irish dance world. He has mentioned that when he contacts colleagues in Ireland the word "fortnight"comes up in the conversation two or three times! As in "when is the event taking place?" "In about a fortnight." "When will evaluations be sent out?" "About a fortnight later"and so forth!

    In what alphabet and from what planet is my captcha word?

  19. Tell me "frisson" hasn't gone out of use! I use it. And a good few of the others. But I have yet to defenestrate someone in a book. Hmmm.

    One of my language quibbles (is that still a good word?) is the misuse of "anxious" for "eager". Does anyone still say "eager?"

    I eagerly await a response.

  20. I use "askew" and "obliged" and even fortnight on occasion--probably because my mother is British. My favorite word for the last several months has been "behoove."

  21. LOVE defenestration --
    I learned that one the hard way. Used a friend's bathroom and the sign on the inside of the door said: DO NOT LOCK - DEFENESTRATION IS THE ONLY WAY OUT. Turned out they could also take the door off its hinges.

    I love those words that sound like opposites but aren't. Raveled and unraveled. Flammable and inflammable.

  22. Ah, Deb, anxious for eager -- you've identified one of Mr. Right's few pet peeves. He has corrected me, gently, sweetly, to the point where I now self-correct, sometimes even before I open my mouth.

    Askew, behoove -- love 'em. Also, frolic. And carouse. And lost usages, as in "a handsome woman."

  23. Lexie,
    I am off to lookup disquisition, I just like the way it sounds.

    Defenestration, despite it's obviously popularlity on Jungle Red, may not make it into my writing or spoken language I think because it sounds to me more like it should have an environemental meaning, even though I know it must come from the french fenetre (window Right?) . Or am I overthinking this?

  24. Darlene, Deb and anonymous,
    It looks like the evidence is steadily mounting that fortnight has only been abandoned in the US language. It's remaining popularity in the British Kingdom is just more evidence we can succeed in bringing i back here.

    Leslie, although we never said rubbish in New JErsey, I notice that New Englanders use it all the time. They use it to differentiate from trash. As in rubbish is all paper and doesn't smell.

    But not enough people use it - when it's an excellent replacement for B.S.

    Linda, I agree, I noticed that the univesity's list was not as out of date usage as my list.

  25. Defenstration comes from the Latin:
    de- meaning down or away from and fenestra, meaning window or opening. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a short story called "The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch" which he included in his "Tales From the White Hart" collection.

    [Today I am in favor of "The Defenestrationof the Captcha . . . ."

  26. Jangle -- A sound

    Jankers -- Military punishment

    Janjaweed -- A group of fighters in the Sudan.

    All in honor of our host. Thanks, Jan, for a fun column!

  27. Words that are good replacements for curse words, and that we should still use:


    Words that are good names for idiots, and that we should still use:


    Jan, I think you are on the money about fenetre being the root word for defenestration, which always confuses me because of its similarity to deforestation.

  28. When I was small and ran across defenestration (in a book about medieval knights and warfare), I loved it. I thought it was some especially gory kind of piercing with a lance. When I looked it up, I was so disappointed. Just thrown out a window? Bummer. No lovely emboweling or excess bleeding. (I was a fierce little thing.)

  29. Linda,
    I can totally see why you thought that. De-fense
    and the stration part sounds like it is piercing something.

    How a word sounds to me has a big impact on if I ever really understand it enough to use it.

    Which is why jangle IS such a really good word, Jack. It makes such a nice sound. What kind of punishment does Jankers refer to? Could you use it in a sentence.

    I like Fiddlesticks, Karen, but I'm going to have to get a corset and a 16-inch waist because it is so Scarlet O'hara in my mind. I might even have to use a southern accent.

    But Balderdash, now that's an exclamation!


  30. This is as good a place as any to reveal that I love to read the dictionary! I now feel as though I am in good company. Until reading today's blog post, I knew only one other person who was a word "junkie", a favorite neighbor who passed away a few months ago. He owned both the multi volume and the compressed version (with the magnifier) of the Oxford English Dictionary. We had great conversations about words!

    A college roommate was trying to remove curse words from her vocabulary. When she rejected my suggestion that she should give me a quarter each time she cursed (Hey,I was struggling financially:-) I then suggested that she should pick an ordinary word to substitute for the words she did not want to say,and to just put a lot of venom into it whenever she said it! She liked the idea but had trouble deciding how many syllables the word should have. Why didn't I think of Karen's suggestion of Balderdash! I LIKE that word; I may incorporate it into my vocabulary!

    Oh, by the way: my father used the word "behoove" quite often. I think he's the only person I ever knew who did. Nice to hear it mentioned here today!

  31. My father used behoove too, But he was a lawyer and I thought it might have to do with that. Maybe it was just generational.

    We could a whole blog on words to use instead of curse words. My friend used to say Full of Soup, for the alternative. It was easy because it was so close to what she actually WANTED to say.

    I think the best thing about the digital readers is the instant dictionary!

  32. Love it! Wish I had something to add, but you've hit all my favorites.

    I have to admit to just lurking sometimes because I know I can't untangle the captcha.

  33. "Jeopardy" tonight [26 September]:
    In the Double Jeopardy round, for $2,000.00 . . .

    Answer: The act of throwing something out a window."

    Question: "What is defenestration?"

  34. Love all those words and hope we keep them. I had an aunt who, instead of raising her fork as a proper hostess to signal it was okay to eat, used to say "Shall we commence?" It's stuck with me all these years.