I’ve just started reading The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It was a birthday present and I put off opening it until I had finished the Christmas books. Now I’ve turned the page and discovered a delightful surprise.  Years ago, my book club read The Professor and the Madman  by Simon Winchester. It is a story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary under the supervision of Prof. James Murray. This book, Lost Words, is based on the same historical event. 

Esme is the motherless daughter of one of the compilers. The book opens with Esme, aged 4 sitting under the table where the scholars are deciding which words belong in the dictionary and writing definitions.  So begins her fascination with words.

As Esme grows older she finds she is a misfit in society but her desire for words continues. She needs words to define herself,  to understand the world and to carry her through pain and disillusionment. The lost words in particular, words relating to the world outside the halls of power, become her beacon and form her career.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but the opening chapters remind me yet again of the power of words. In the book the words that are “lost” often concern matters of importance to women but not to men, much like our history books focus on geopolitical events rather than domestic matters.

In my lifetime, the power of gender in language was exposed during the women’s lib movement of the ’60’s. That’s when we changed Miss and Mrs. to Ms,  when “postman” became “letter carrier” and “chairman” became “chair.” I accept most of the changes but I do object to that last one. i know chairperson is clumsy but I’d rather be called Madam Chairman than be referred to as a piece of furniture.

Currently the transgendered community is trying to incorporate another change in pronouns, preferring “they” even in the singular, or some new word like zir. Even official forms are now giving “other” as a choice under gender.

History abounds with examples of words changing their meaning. 

  • Nice once meant silly, foolish or simple. Not a compliment!
  • Hussy comes from the word housewife and meant mistress of the household. Can’t explain why it came to mean a disreputable woman today. Maybe that is one of the lost words in Ms Williams’ book. 
  • Brave meant handsome in Shakespeare’s time.
  • Unpregnant , not a term we’re used to, meant idiotic or insane.
  • Sad didn’t mean blue, but merely serious.  One could be perfectly content but have a “sad” conversation in Tudor England.
  • Grace at the time the King James Version of the Bible was prepared, always meant Divine Grace. It was never used to mean elegant, or nimble, or poised.

It is wise to bear in mind that words change their meaning when we read old texts such as Shakespeare’s plays or early translations of the Bible, or Pilgrim’s Progress, or Canterbury Tales.

Words are also manipulated in cultural matters.

  • Abortion is called termination.
  • Euthanasia is called MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying).
  • Lies are called disinformation.
  • Since we cannot accept ourselves are wrong-doers, the word sin has pretty well disappeared from everyday usage.
  • Our loved ones don’t die any more, they pass.

Whether or not one agrees with these changes, the fact remains that words are so powerful, we are constantly working to make them more potent or to soften them. A person who would never use fists to settle an argument, will corrupt words to attain the same end. 

The English language is a wonderfully evolving and expressive set of words. How those words came to be included in our dictionaries and how some have changed through the ages is a topic for a myriad (10,000) scholars. For an amateur wordsmith it’s a never-ending pleasure.

A favourite pastime on social media these days is listing odd words. Hornswoggle is an oft cited example. One of my favourites comes from Regency romance, “mutton dressed as lamb,”

What about you, dear reader. Do you have a favourite word or expression? Leave it in the comments below, if possible in a sentence, so we can all expand our knowledge of words. 

P.S. I’ve become an enthusiastic player of Wordle. 

My best score is getting it on the second try.

 

 

 

 

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