Forgotten English

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RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR

You know that, don’t you? That language, like all living things, is continually in a state of flux, where the old rings in the new, not vice versa. Yes — you got it right. This is precisely the premise, a vocation like no other, for Jeffrey Kacirk, a research aficionado, with a special love for antique dictionaries. Kacirk is so immensely devoted to archaic words — or, unfamiliar sounds that slipped out of usage long ago — that only he could have thought of a book on English, the world forgot.

Kacirk’s fascinating book, Forgotten English [William Morrow], is a memorial for lost words of the English language — the most dynamic of tongues. According to Kacirk, “Change is true of all languages, which grow and decline as a result of societal needs and artistic creation.” He adds: “The richness and the maturity of a language may be gauged by the volume and quality of words it can afford to lose. In this regard, English has had no equal in the sheer volume of expressions it has shed over the years.” He is absolutely right.

Kacirk’s delightful work is also a rip-roaring, enlightening guide to archaic words, and their definitions — a resurrection of literary nuggets, to be precise. It is a rollicking, enchanting, and hilarious analysis of a host of glimpses too — history, culture, traditions, and beliefs. Of images, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. To cull a few gems —

  • In the good, old days, bad dreams were thought to be the work of a ‘night hag,’ a female demon
  • Hair hopelessly tangled? It was called ‘elf locks,’ a noun from Shakespeare’s era. It meant an entanglement of the hair so thorough as to not be undone
  • Shaking hands to seal an engagement of marriage was called ‘handfasting’
  • A ‘scuttled-butt’ was nothing but a barrel of water
  • ‘Bladderskate’ referred to an indistinct, noisy, or indiscreet talker
  • ‘Stangster’ only meant a husband with marital problems, stemming either from mistreating his wife, or being henpecked by her
  • ‘Glister’ subscribed to a medical treatment where fluids of different qualities were injected into the bowels. The Bard, for one, created a humorous double entendre in his The Merchant of Venice: “All that glisters is not gold.”
  • ‘Piggesnye’ exemplified a term of endearment for one’s sweetheart. Literally, ‘a darling pig’s eye.’ The word was first coined by Geoffrey Chaucer, who is also credited for inspiring the tradition of sending love notes on Saint Valentine’s Day
  • ‘Catchpoule’ was an old English term for tax-gatherer. Literally, one who catches fowls
  • ‘Flitterwochen’ happens to be an old English expression, for a holiday spent soon after the wedding, or fleeting weeks — now referred to as honeymoon.

Impressed? Go and catch up with Kacirk’s ‘loverly’ [remember Audrey Hepburn, as Eliza Dolittle, in My Fair Lady?], book, if you can, and try using it to doing some ‘research’ on your own, with family, or friends — and, to getting engaged in an intellectual, fun game. It will do you a world of good — one that is much, much better than watching a wacky, meaningless TV show, or any such muck, or getting stressed in the most difficult Covid-19 times that we’re all going through.

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