Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Words, Words, Words

World Wide Words is just that: Everything and anything about the English language, compiled by lexicographer Michael Quinion. From a well-stocked library in the little British market town of Thornbury, Michael writes a weekly newsletter read by some 50,000 people around the world. It's a veritable salmagundi of etymology, history, weird words, obsolete words, grammar and answers to readers' questions. Hey, where else can you learn about "the hairy antecedents of 'rebarbative?'" Michael's also a freelance contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary and an accomplished author. His latest book, just released, is called Gallimaufry, about words that have vanished from the English language. We had a rather delightful conversation with Michael:

VT: Your newsletter's a hoot.

Michael: I do like dealing with words that lurk in the Oxford English Dictionary but never see the light of day because no one knows they exist, or wants to use them. I find them fascinating because they're an example of how people's minds once worked.

I've also had a bit of fun with "pulchritudinous" recently, a rather fun word. At its simplest it means beautiful, but it really means a form of comely curvaceousness -- it's more than having a pretty face. It's usually applied these days to women, but historically, interestingly, it was pretty much unisexual. I found a reference to Henry VIII being pulchritudinous, which sounds rather odd to anybody today, particularly if you know his portraits. We think of him as a rather obese and unhealthy middle aged man, but he was extremely handsome and fit in his youth and that's what they were referring to. It's an example of the way words change their meaning down the centuries.

VT: In your latest book you talk about words that vanish. Why does that happen?

Michael: There are several different reasons why words go away. The most obvious one is that we no longer need the word, because we don't have the thing it refers to. For example, we don't use the telegraph any more to send messages. The word "telegraph" as far as everyday language goes has vanished. But, interestingly, in Britain we refer to poles with wires alongside the road as telegraph poles, which is an example of a word which has survived in an idiomatic sense after its strictly accurate applicability has gone. There are lots of words like that. For example, we still hang up the telephone but it's been a long time since telephones had a hook on the side to hang the mouthpiece on.

VT: How else?

Michael: You get words changing under, I suppose, the forces of fashion as much as anything else. Why do we now "lunch" instead of "luncheon," for example. I suppose because the pace of life has heated up, we can't afford to wait for the extra syllable. Changing social conditions also often cause words to drop out of use.

Then you get words which change their meanings. One very good example is the title of my book, Gallimaufry, which originally was a cookery term, a dish that was made up of leftovers. Then it became, as a result of those associations, a figurative term, a jumble or medley or hodgepodge. And terms can change because circumstances change.

VT: In your newsletter you talk about "folk etymologies," can you explain them?

Michael: There are two different kinds of folk etymologies. The formal one is when people change the form of a word to make it look like something more recognizable. The classic example is "bridegroom," which in the 14th century was "bridegome," from the Old English word for man. "Gome" and "groom" both existed, and people eventually changed the word to "bridegroom." Which is a bit strange, because a "groom," of course, was a fairly lowly servant. But people don't change words out of logic.

VT: What's the other kind?

Michael: This one's a less precise meaning where people come up with stories about the origins of words, based not on evidence, logic or reasonable deduction, but on whatever seems most appropriate as a story. You get lots and lots of really weird stories. For example, that the word "cop" as policeman stands for "constable on patrol." That's a very widely-told story but it's complete rubbish. "Cop" actually comes from an old English term meaning "to catch."

VT: What else do people write you about?

Michael: A reader this morning asked me about "An Elephant in the Living Room," meaning a difficult subject that everybody skirts around and pretends doesn't exist. It's an American expression that's become a horribly overused cliché in British politics. It dates from the late 70s and early 80s in the United States.

VT: Hmm, it seemed it would have been older.

Michael: The OED has an entry for it with an example of the phrase from The New York Times in 1959, if I recall. But there it has exactly the opposite sense of the modern one. What seems to have happened is people invented the idea of "the elephant in the room" as a way of expressing something really big that you can't ignore. But somebody at some point turned it around the other way -- something so big and difficult and awkward that you have to ignore it. These are the sorts of things that you find when you start investigating words and phrases.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 6th 2006, 1:23 PM
Comment by: Gabriela R.
Just reminded me of the expression in Spanish "Tirar la cadena" (pull the chain), for press the flush these days. I remember the chain in my Grandma´s house. In my family, as in many others, we still joke, "...tirá la cadena!" The funny thing is that even my kids, aged 23 and 19, resort to the same expression!
Gaby Rosso
Buenos Aires
Friday December 15th 2006, 11:39 PM
Comment by: LT.COL. DON V.
Tuesday January 2nd 2007, 12:58 PM
Comment by: Kym R.
It's interesting how words and phrases in the past, even the recent past, have totally changed. It seems as if some people would rather "create" the meaning of a word from their own personal experiences rather than take the time to figure out what the word really means - use of the dictionary nowadays appears to be outdated. "Fat" could be a good or bad thing depending on the context of the sentence; so to say, "I'm fat," would take a lot of courage if I'm a large person, or a lot of attitude if I think I'm popular. Who's to know?

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