Well Defined

Reading & Writing

I found this old book at the back of a cupboard. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t pick it up in 1787, which is the date inside the cover. It’s an English dictionary published by Northfleet, but like all books of the period it’s scant on publishing information inside. This is where I get all ‘1066 And All That’, history being all one can remember, but I know that George III was on the throne and the American War of Independence was just concluding. Learning about the language of the time is always interesting.

Apart from the fact that section of the dictionary covering the letter ‘E’ is partly missing and all the Ss are Fs it’s very readable, but what strikes me most is now much simpler the terminology was, and how many of the words are far more direct than now.

We know that during the Georgian reign language, like architecture, was simpler and clearer, and often abbreviated – spoken language sounded even closer to today’s usage – only becoming encrusted with baroque complexity as it continued toward the end of the 19th century. Here are a handful of definitions I found inside the book. I’ve left the Fs in place of Ss.

Archimage; f, the chief enchanter

Boufe (boofe) v, to drink lavishly, to tope

Contumacioufnefs, f, ftubbornnefs, haughtinefs

Coftard, f, a blockhead, a kind of large apple

Delate, v, to carry or bear

Entame, v, to fubdue or foften

Fairy, f, a very fmall phantom

Famofed, a, to become renowned

Porwigle, f. tadpole, a young toad

Pofer, f, one who asks hard questions

Scath, v, to damage or deftroy

Clearly there are a vast number of lost verbs describing the behaviour of one person to another. Many of the entries are hilariously simple (Boxer: one who boxes) and it’s tempting to think that the world was a simpler place, but the richness of language in what must have been regarded as a very simple pocket dictionary is quite extraordinary. Luckily I have Mr Bryant to bring back many of these lost words, if only to confuse Raymond Land with them.

21 comments on “Well Defined”

  1. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I’m going to call tadpoles porwigles from now on.
    We have to know – did they remember to put sausage in?

  2. Jan says:

    Scath as in scathe do you reckon Mr. F.?

    As a bit of an aside to this one compare the attributes of the faery/ fairy with those of the Arabic jin.( As in the popular occupants of somewhat tarnished but much valued lamps. ) Quite surprising when you compare the things the jin, and fairies have in common. To kick off with they both get the niggle if you end up in their territory (so they enchant you) …….only being one thing they have in common. Don’t be getting scath with me Mr. Fowler …..just pointing it out ain’t i ?

  3. Jo W says:

    Looking forward to finding some ‘new’ words in your latest offering, when I get a copy. Some that appeared in previous B&M books, I have listed for future use.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Costard’ – the root of the lovely old word ‘Costermonger’ – ie., one who sells Costards, or ‘Custard-Apples'(not, actually, as nice as they sound, sadly).

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    I’ve seen tadpoles named as ‘Polliwogs’

  6. Liz Thompson says:

    Porriwiggles for tadpoles also. Current Northamptonshire 1950s. I do like the idea that poser is someone who asks hard questions. Nowadays I think it’s someone who claims to know either the answers to hard questions or the important people who came up with the answers.

  7. Gary Hart says:

    Peter, that is exactly what we call them out here in the Essex wilds. And snails are always Hodnidods. A hangover from my Grandparents who had strong broad Essex accents. Sad to not hear it these days due to the swamping of estuary English.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    Deanna Durbin sang a song called “Its’ Foolish But It’s Fun” whivh includes the word “polliwogs”. I always wondered what it meant!

    My favourite old word is “Doxie”, which I haven’t heard since I saw Margaret Lockwood in “The Wicked Lady”

  9. SteveB says:

    Ha ha haven’t heard hodnidod since I was a child!!
    Contumaciousness is still around today as is contumely
    I wasnt aware of the connection between custard apples and costermongers – obvious really!
    Delate is a word I never heard before

  10. J F Norris says:

    No one has asked the the most baffling question, making me a poser, I guess. Why are all the nouns marked with an F? I can think of no synonym for noun that starts with either F or S.

  11. snowy says:

    Thif if fome thing of a ftab in the dark!

    It might be an abbreviation for ‘substantivum’, shortened down to ‘s’ and then given the long ‘s’ form as ‘f’.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    I have the same question J.F.N.
    The f used for a mid word s is a slightly different character – if you could give us a close-up, Chris. I read Rasselas in an edition that was printed under that convention and got used to it. My Grandmother was astounded that the university would allow a student to check out something that must be very valuable.
    They are either tadpoles or polliwogs out here, usually referring to frogs. Looking at that “tad-” part it would seem to refer to toads, unless it is part of “just a tad” meaning something small or immature.
    Bouse – to drink, as in booze. Interesting that that s would be a z today to indicate the pronunciation or did they say it more like bows, although that doesn’t help and I thought of blouse but that doesn’t help either because people pronounce that using either of the s sounds. What was the point of having a z if it isn’t used to clarify pronunciation?

  13. Ian Luck says:

    I can’t say that I’ve ever heard the term ‘Hodnidod’ for snail before – but a gardener at a place I once worked, called them ‘Hodmandods’ and occasionally ‘Dodmen’. Similarly, having heard the name ‘Hedgepig’, meaning, of course, ‘Hedgehog’, on the charming children’s TV show ‘The Pogles/Pogle’s Wood’ my brother and I used it as our preferred name for the creature. My niece, for some reason, never called Antarctic birds ‘Penguins’ as a small child, calling them ‘Peggity Wing-Wings’ instead. I have heard the word ‘Pollywog’ before – but not where you might expect – the name of one of the earliest tracks by the great Beastie Boys, was entitled: ‘Pollywog Stew’. Indeed.

  14. Ken Mann says:

    Bouse immediately made me think of bowser, but apparently that comes from a surname.

  15. eggsy says:

    Bouse is booze, surely?
    Helen’s right, why on earth did they think the long s was useful or pleasant? Unless, like so much, it serves as a heffalump trap for the initiated?
    Or shibboleth. Or fhibboleth?

  16. eggsy says:

    Sorry, try again, less school of the bleedin’ obvious. The bowser is indeed named for Sylvanus Freelove Bowser. Whose ancestor was probably named for his toping abilities, either in English (Bowse was a cant variant of Bouse/booze) or from the original Dutch Buize.
    Nominative determinism again?

  17. Ian Luck says:

    The lovely word ‘Booze’ has been around for thousands of years – it appears in some ancient Egyptian texts. It appears to refer to beer, which was known to be brewed, and enjoyed, by the ancient Egyptians.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    According to John Ayto in his Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins (how trustworthy is this? It looks pretty good) tadpole is connected to toad from ME sadde, a toad, and pol, a head (from whence our poll, a counting of heads)because there is so much head and so little of anything else. He doesn’t suggest any difference between toads and frogs. I’ve never seen toad spawn to recognize so perhaps they are so similar as to make for identical usage.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Posted a little too quickly.
    Booze, Mr Ayto says, was borrowed twice from MDutch busen, “drink much alcohol” in the 13th century. If it had been in continuous use we would have had bouse (to rhyme with the verb “to house” but we borrowed the same word again in 16th century, giving us “booze”

  20. SteveB says:

    f=s=substantive, old word for noun
    As any sule no 😉

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Thanks to ‘Blackadder’, I can now only ever see Dr Johnson as he was played (brilliantly, mind), by Robbie Coltrane, furious as he discovers that he’s omitted the word ‘Sausage'(fausage?) from his dictionary.

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