How Words Are Born and Die

Wherein our columnist makes a case for resurrecting obsolete words — at least in idioms

ACCORDING TO BIOLOGISTS, most species that have ever existed are extinct. Likewise, words are organic. They are born, have lives and often disappear, albeit not at the catastrophic level of species. They don’t actually die, but many become obsolete and the OED records tens of thousands of these words with the notation “obs.,” or obsolete.

There are, however, two mood-related words relegated to lexicographic antiquity that I’d like to resurrect: mubble fubbles and chantepleure. The former, used in the 16th and 17th centuries, refers to a state of mild depression; the latter was used in the 14th and 15th centuries to denote an enigmatic mixture of happiness and sadness. But in the case of both words, after two centuries of use, English speakers stopped employing them and they have acquired lexicographic obsolescence.

One calculation shows that at least 20 per cent of the 231,000 entries in the OED are now obsolete. These defunct words range from aa, a stream or watercourse, and end in zymome, a name for a constituent of gluten that is insoluble in water.

English has a large vocabulary by dint of its history, which might explain this phenomenon. England was conquered by the Vikings in the eighth century and the Normans in the 11th century, and prudently concluded many centuries later that it was better to be a hammer than a nail by proceeding to invade nations in Asia, Africa and North America. In the process, English added multitudinous words to its lexicon, but not every added word need remain in our vocabulary. An example is respair, used both as a noun and a verb, which refers to fresh hope after a period of despair. It was listed but once in the 15th century, then quickly forgotten.

Numerous other words that employed Greek or Latin roots were fashioned by scholarly writers in the 14th century. Many of these new coinages (dubbed inkhorns because ink originally was stored in horns) were unknown or uncommon in ordinary speech. Two examples of such academic oddities are ingent, which meant “ very great,” and illecebrous, which meant “attractive.” Both these words, however, were in use for only 100 years.

One reason words disappear is because they get superseded by synonyms. For example, the words roetgenogram, radiogram and X-ray were all born towards the end of the 19th century, but only X-ray is still in common use today.

A word, however, can avoid the ignominy of obsolescence and enjoy at least a half-life by burrowing its way into an idiomatic expression. For example, have you ever espied a caboodle sans a kit? According to the OED, it was last recorded “kitless” in 1923. Caboodle appears to be a corruption of boodle, which developed in the 1830s in America and was used to mean “a lot” or “a crowd,” but by the end of the 19th century this usage was all but extinct. Similarly, kith, meaning one’s friends and acquaintances, is only used nowadays in the expression “kith and kin.” In Old English, however, it referred to knowledge, acquaintance, or one’s native land in which you had enjoyed great familiarity.

Another of these vestigial words is fettle. Nowadays, it is almost always found in the expression “in fine fettle,” which designates a very good condition. Fettle was born into the Lancashire dialect in the 18th century as referring to dress, case or condition, and originally there were varieties of fettles such as “poor,” “good” or “frustrated.” However, by the beginning of the 20th century the word seems only to exist when wedded to the adjective “fine.”

Another little word in this category is the aforementioned dint. In Old English, the word referred to a blow struck with a weapon and came to represent subduing something by force. Nowadays the word is largely used in the expression “by dint of,” and can represent any quality that allows you to accomplish a task.

There are also several words found in idioms that, while familiar, have meanings in expressions that don’t correspond with the sense one usually associates with the word. For example, if you’re a gentle soul, you might never again be able to “cut someone to the quick” once you’re aware that quick designates that tender flesh below a fingernail or toenail.

Also, the word boot, as in “to boot,” which has been loitering around since the year 1,000 and meaning “good,” “advantage” or “profit,” had died out in these senses by the 19th century but continues to enjoy a half-life in its contemporary idiomatic form. And the word hue, as in “hue and cry,” doesn’t refer to a shade of colour but derives from the Old French hu, meaning clamour, and is most likely onomatopoeic, as is the word “hoot.”

So let us hope that English retains these idiomatic usages; better a half-life than no life at all.

Howard Richler’s latest book, Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit, was published in 2016.