The dictionary is filled with strange and wonderful words that are scandalously underused. Open at any page and you’re likely to find a gem glistening in the corner, whether it’s gongoozle (to stare idly at a watercourse and do nothing) or zwodder (a feeling of drowsiness). We see it, and think to ourselves that we absolutely must use it in conversation. But by the time that you actually see someone staring idly at a watercourse and doing nothing, you can’t quite remember what the word was, and of course you’ll never be able to find it again. It’s lost, hidden away among the much more boring words. Why do dictionaries insist on defining words like “and”. And why do they have to be arranged alphabetically?
We all have moments when we’re lost for words, or when we struggle to describe the-little-plastic-bits-on-the-end-of-your-shoelaces (anglets), but it’s usually too much of a hassle to run off and read through all 18 volumes of “the Oxford English Dictionary” searching for just the right term. There was a guy recently who read the whole thing cover to eighteenth cover, but it took him a whole year, and if you did that every time you were looking for the right word, you might come back to find that the conversation had moved on.
That’s why I decided to pick out all the best and most useful unused words in the dictionary and put them in a book. But I wasn’t going to arrange it alphabetically. I decided to arrange them by the hour of the day when they might be useful. So antejentacular (before breakfast) is in the chapter for 7 AM, and curtain lecture (a telling-off given by a wife to her husband in bed) is saved until midnight. Ultracrepidarian (giving opinions on a subject you know nothing about) is saved for office hours, and gymnologising (having an argument in the nude) isn’t.
In the end, I found myself describing a complete day, but a day based around the finest words in the dictionary. That was my rule: they all had to have been recorded in at least one English dictionary. These words are beautiful. They remind us of why English is the greatest language on earth. They tell us stories about lost worlds. They make us laugh and sometimes shock us. But most importantly, they deserve to be brought back. They’re all still usable. Some of them are nearly new, with just a few citations on the clock. So come on, expand your word power. Here are ten beauties to get you going.
Quomodocunquizing is “making money in any way that you can”. It’s almost the same as the modern word “hustling” except without any of the gangster-ish overtones. It’s listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, but they only have one recorded use of it from 1652 where the Scotsman Thomas Urquhart complained about “Those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets.”
A whiffler is somebody who walks in front of you through a crowd, waving a chain or an axe in order to clear your path. Back in Medieval times kings and aristocrats would have whifflers to walk through the town square in front of them pushing away any peasants who might have got in the Royal Way. However, I think that whifflers could make a comeback. They could hire themselves out in busy airports and shopping malls and blast your way through.
Mind you, whiffler can also mean “a smoker of tobacco”.
Though the words in “The Horologicon” are all old or strange, it’s amazing how easy they are to use, and how people understand you straight away. To smicker is to “look amorously after somebody.” It’s one of those wonderful words whose meaning is obvious the second you use it in the right context. “Stop smickering at that woman! It’s so embarrassing.” Or “Why is Brad ignoring me? I spent hours on this hair-do and not even a smicker.”
It’s a lovely little detail of anatomy that the muscles used to move your eyes sideways are called the amatorial muscles, because they’re the ones that you use to give amorous glances.
Deipnophobia is “a morbid fear of dinner parties.” We all have it occasionally, especially when the in-laws are involved. The Oxford English Dictionary lists it alongside deipnodiplomatic, which means “inviting people round to dinner in order to patch up an argument.” They both come from the Ancient Greek deipnon, which just meant dinner. But one of the joys of the hidden corners of the dictionary is all the words that English has constructed from ancient languages. The next entry is for deipnosophist, which is “somebody who talks wisely over dinner.”
Uhtceare is an Old English word for “waking up before dawn and not being able to get back to sleep because you’re worried about something.” Uht (pronounced oot) was the hour before sunrise and ceare is the same as the modern English care. Sometimes the joy of discovering a strange word is the realisation that other people have experienced that. It’s not just me who lies there waiting for the alarm clock. People have been suffering from uhtceare for over a thousand years.
Sometimes a word tells you about a time and a place that’s gone forever. Sprunt is an old Scottish word meaning “to chase girls around among the haystacks after dark.” It’s recorded in an old dictionary of the dialect of the Roxburgh, but it tells you so much about what Roxburgh must have been like. Imagine a time and a place where chasing girls around among the haystacks after dark was such a common activity that people said “We need a single-syllable word for this.” It beats staycationing any day.
Going to Siege
People can never say what they mean, especially when it comes to the bathroom. The English language is full of strange ways of telling people that you’re off to fulfill the needs of nature. In the eighteenth century people talked of “taking a voyage to the Spice Islands,” in the nineteenth century gentlemen would “ease themselves.” but back in Medieval times a knight would tell people that he was “Going to siege.” There’s something so poetic about it, so military and noble! But it also firmly implies a dose of constipation.
To fudgel is an eighteenth-century term meaning “Pretending to work when you’re not actually doing anything at all.” Modern offices are full of it, largely because when somebody is staring intently at a computer screen and typing it’s hard to tell whether they’re busily putting together this year’s accounts or busily updating their Facebook status or buying something on eBay. “Stop fudgelling” should be the catchphrase of every efficient office manager.
A Wheady Mile
The wheady mile is the last mile or so of a journey that, for some reason, seems to take much longer than it should. It’s an old dialect term from rural Shropshire, but it still applies to modern journeys. It feels as though you’re about to walk through your own front door and collapse into a chair, but instead there’s still the twists and turns and then, even when the wheady mile is complete, you’ve got to find somewhere to park the car. Mind you, a wheady mile is better than a Pisgah sight, which is when, like Moses on Mount Pisgah looking at the Promised Land, you can see something whilst knowing that you’ll never get there.
To groke is an old Scots term meaning “to look at somebody while they’re eating in the hope that they’ll give you some of their food.” Originally, the term was only applied to dogs, and any dog owner will know that look of plaintive groking that comes whenever you’re eating sausages. But groking can be applied to humans as well. Just try opening a box of chocolates in any modern workplace and watch as your co-workers come by to groke and ask you how you are.
If you’re finifugal you’re afraid of finishing anything and… Oh God… I can’t… I can’t.