There should be a word for thinking a word means something it doesn’t; for a long time I thought an emeute was a cudgel. It’s not, it’s an uprising. Although the word is French, it slipped into the English language because of WS Gilbert, who used it in the policemen’s chorus in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. He needed it to rhyme with ‘boots’.
A lot of deliciously arcane and obscure words come from old G&S plays, usually pressed into service because Gilbert’s linguistic density requires so many rhymes in his ‘list’ songs – so we have ‘animalculus’ (a very tiny animal) to rhyme with ‘differential calculus’ and ‘Babylonic cuneiform’ to rhyme with ‘Caractacus’s uniform’. This reaches levels of insanity in a verse from the Major General’s song that reads;
I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.
With the exception of ‘Pinafore’, Mikado’ and ‘Pirates’ Gilbert & Sullivan is an obscure taste now, and yet every once in a while a production comes along that freshen them up and makes them intelligible again. It’s said that ‘Satire is what closes on Saturday night’, but the G&S satires (which is primarily what they are) made me think about vocabulary from an early age.