Snollygoster: someone unprincipled, but shrewd; e.g door-to-door salespeople
Most of them are very boring, very long and often the names of some new molecular wotsit beginning with “poly” or “tri”. But in the world of everyday usage our language is shrinking like the polar ice caps. The vocabulary of today’s texter with little interest in language beyond the keypad is minute. But what a world of words we are letting slip through our fingers! Whatever happened to slubberdegullion or blatteroon (for meanings see below)?
Someone cares about these priceless relics. Journalist Safia Shah has written an illustrated children’s story book called Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited: Around The World In 80 Years, a book that employs many gorgeous words that are fossilised and crumbling. They are cunningly hidden in the story (it comes with a pocket magnifier) so you have to hunt for them.
“Some are old-fashioned and have gone out of usage, others are family words that had been handed down from generation to generation and people weren’t sure if they were proper words,” she writes in her introduction. “Let’s snatch begrumpled from the brink of obscurity… We want to open our wink-a-peeps and champion their cause.”
We do indeed! There are some gloriously eccentric words out there waiting to be re-homed. “Carked” – to be annoyed or alarmed – might be just the word when you next get a parking fine. Try saying to the traffic services operative who has ticketed you, “I am well carked!” and see what response you get. “Fadoodle” means silliness or nonsense and who can resist the verb “snirtle”- to laugh at in a series of snorts? If you are not happy you are less than carked and probably a bit begrumpled. Why, I would like to know, is begrumpled disused when discombobulated and flibbertigibbet still survive? These are mysteries.
Most of the examples in Shah’s book are to be found in dictionaries so they are proper words all right. English is full of regional variations which are delightful. For example, a gargoyle on a church is called a hunkypunk in Somerset.
A good dictionary has words that resemble the most eccentric animal species on a David Attenborough programme. They have lost their habitat and linger in dictionaries that enclose them, under-exercised and moth-eaten.
Miss Shah’s project is to invite readers to contribute forgotten words so we know what we have lost and are losing. There are so many to choose from. I particularly like fratchy (the result of a blunt razor or of not having shaved one’s face or legs for a few days) and grumple (meaning to search about in a purse or handbag). Many of these old forgotten words bring to mind characters we know. For instance Billy Bunter is a kedge-bellied slubberdegullion (an overfed fool) if ever there was one and so is Toad of Toad Hall.
It is sad that even recently current words such as persiflage (light mockery or banter) and contumely (aspersions and insults) are receding over the horizon but there is cause for hope. People are very good at making up words. Most families have a private or clancular language. In my house any upmarket tea bag is known as snotpil (“would you like snotpil or builder’s”) which is Lipton’s spelled backwards. We use the word grobble to describe any item in the fridge that’s gone grey and whiskery.
It’s a very British thing, the made-up word. There is a great tradition of it. Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky is a landmark in nonsense literature:
And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
“Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
If frabjous isn’t a real word then it most definitely should be.
One suspects that so many words have fallen into disuse because they are inherently funny in sound and often abusive in meaning. English is a superb language to be rude in. Shakespeare should be introduced to children through his capacity for the creative insult – as in “thou cream-faced loon”.
Our language has greatly sobered up in the past two centuries and the Victorians are probably to blame. Many obsolete words are the victims of prudery or shame.
But although there are now one million words available to us (exclude scientific terms and it’s half that) a working vocabulary of a mere 7,000 words would be good going these days. Most make do with less than half that number. Why?
We need a word to describe the noise made by squeaky new shoes. There used to be one: jirging. And why be out of breath when you can better be described as purfled? Much better than puffed, surely.
Researchers this year ranked 2,500 of our most commonly used words and compared them with the same list from 50 years ago. They found that any word to do with civility and good manners was less used than before: modesty, conscience and gentleman are no longer in vogue. Guess which words were most used? Yup, sex and celebrity.
I feel a national campaign afoot. If we can get the nation’s young abecedarians (that’s people learning the alphabet) enjoying the rantipole parade of verbal treasure that is our English inheritance, then we’ll no longer be lost for the right word or even the right thingamajig.
Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited: Around The World In 80 Years, by Safia Shah (Float Your Boat, £10.95)
VERITABLY VIVID VOCABULARY
A selection of some of the most resonant and juicy words might include the following. I have expanded on the definitions a little.
WINK-A-PEEPS: the eyes.
BORBORYGMUS: long-winded word for an eructation or tummy rumble.
SCURRYFUNGE: hurriedly tidying one’s house before the cleaner arrives.
QUAGGY: wet and boggy, as in the river Quaggy in South-east London.
RAMFEEZLED: exhausted by overwork, a synonym for the equally lovely word, forswunk.
BLATTEROON: a senseless boaster or blabberer, you’ve probably been out with one at some point.
GROAK: to stare longingly, what dogs do at the sausage on your fork.
FESTINATE: to hurry, “it’s late, we need to festinate”.
TESTUDINEOUS: slow, as in “my computer is ridiculously testudineous”.
SMELLFUNGUS: someone who always finds fault in things, an all-round curmudgeon.
SLUBBERDEGULLION: a wretch or scoundrel.
ZAMZODDEN: overcooked or stewed, eg, school dinners.
ANONYMUNCLE: an unknown writer, a failed novelist.
SNARKY: irritable and critical.
BRABBLE: to bicker, quibble, wrangle.
GUBBERTUSHED: having projecting teeth, bucktoothed.
BLATHERSKITE someone who won’t stop talking utter rubbish; eg John Prescott.
NINNYHAMMER a piffling fool, better known by its abbreviation ninny; jobbernowl means much the same.
SNOLLYGOSTER someone unprincipled but shrewd; eg, door-to-door salespeople.