Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The TLS, April 13, 2018

Paul Anthony Jones
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”.


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