Wednesday, 30 May 2018
The TLS, April 13, 2018
THE CABINET OF LINGUISTIC CURIOSITIES
A yearbook of forgotten words
384pp. Elliott and Thompson. £14.99.
978 1 78396 358 4
The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones, a compendium of obscure and obsolete words, is designed to be read at a rate of one entry a day, with each word connected to the date under which it appears. For example, “pseudandry”, the use of a male pseudonym by a female writer, appears on November 22, the birth date of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Elsewhere, “antimetabole” (the repetition, in a transposed order, of words or phrases in successive clauses) comes on January 20, the date on which, in 1961, John F. Kennedy said:“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.
The most rewarding way to approach this book is to guess the meaning of the word before reading its definition. It is thus an ideal companion for etymology enthusiasts and aficionados of other languages, ancient or modern.Jones cites many words coined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the fashion for taking or creating words from Latin was at its height. Examples include “supervivant”(a survivor), “transmural” (situated beyond a wall), “singultus” (hiccup) and “breviloquent”(pithy and succinct in speech). Elsewhere, from Ancient Greek, we have “epistolophobia” (the fear of receiving correspondence),“arctophile” (a collector of teddy bears) and“crapulence” (a feeling of sickness caused by overeating or drinking).
Italian readers will recognize “abbozzo”,meaning first draft, which was directly imported in the nineteenth century, and many will discern the French origins of “alamodic”, aseventeenth-century word meaning extremely fashionable. Spanish speakers will immediately detect that “cacafuego” signifies some-thing unpleasant. It was a sixteenth-century term for a blustering braggart.
There is a lot of entertaining trivia here.Under “basiate” (to kiss) we learn that kissing was banned in England on July 16, 1439 to prevent the spread of plague. The Arctic is named not after the white bears that live there, but after the Great Bear constellation that is so prominent in the northern night sky. We also learn that cellophane and laundromat were once proprietary names (see “anepronym”, a trade-marked name that has come to be used generically). Jones might have added “heroin”to that list. And there are legions of euphonic words that might also have deserved inclusion,such as “ingurgitate” (to swallow greedily),“rubiginous” (rust-coloured) or the now archaic “to ostentate”. That fricative, staccato verb resonates so much more forcefully than“to show off”.