There’s Not Always A Word For It

Reading & Writing


A letter reaches me from reader John Healey in South Australia who has twigged one of the longest-running games I’ve been playing in my novels. My love of esoteric language has occasionally encouraged me to add rare words, and to sometimes make them up. I figured that if Billy Shakespeare could invent over 1,700 words, I could at least manage a handful.

Mr Healey writes, ‘As a fan of Bryant and May from the beginning, I take great delight in your occasional use of obscure words, such as “essoinment” and “mataelogian”.

I work as a reader for the Oxford English Dictionary, mostly dealing with mediaeval texts. But I contribute quotations from modern books when I come across them. I thought you might like to know that I have sent the O.E.D. slips for the adjectives “obganiatory” and “fritzing”, referencing Oranges and Lemons.

I have also, in the past, sent in slips for the new words “chatoyance” (Rune), “choreating”, (Darkest Day), “crepusculate” and “suspirant” (Spanky), the new sense of “scissor”, with reference to stage movement (Full Dark House) and a postdating of “apricity” (Wild Chamber). None of these are in the dictionary as yet, as you are probably aware. It may take some time for the editors to incorporate them into the online third edition of O.E.D. that is presently being prepared but I am sure they will eventually appear, with quotations from your books.’

A couple of points; a background in Latin helps if you’re planning to create a word (I’m still in correspondence with my old Latin master). And a cavalier attitude to word-slinging is essential. Like me you’ll commit all sorts of appalling solecisms along the way but it’s bloody good fun. You need to be careful about antanaclasis (using the same word in different senses) and frequentative suffixes (like switching ‘le’ to the end of a word) but if you come up with the basic form someone else can figure out the declensions.

Easier than this is repurposing old words for new uses. You can start with medieval cookery instructions or Jacobean stage directions and find a strong visual image that mirrors a modern action for which there is no word. Language is robust enough to withstand your tinkerings; it is continually adapted by its users.

For example, the term for an adder – one of the two British snakes everyone here knows about – originally referred to a German natter snake, and became anglicised to ‘a nadder’, but users misheard and detached the ‘n’ by the process known as metanalysis.

Old spellings varied because they were primarily heard rather than read – and to be honest, what does it matter if the spelling varies a little? So long as a language breathes it has life.


32 comments on “There’s Not Always A Word For It”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    fascinating, and somewhat Jasfoupian.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I would be disappointed if I didn’t need a dictionary at least once when reading one of your books.

  3. John+Griffin says:

    Serendipity has been a constant companion over the years of reading B&M, as well as these fine footnotes/commentaries. Part of the fun!

  4. Paul C says:

    My favourite new word (or neologism for all the lexicographers out there) is doomscrolling which means constantly checking updates on bad news stories. Strange to think I’ve been a doomscroller for years and never realised……

  5. Ian Mason says:

    Hold on folks, I think we’re missing the most important thing here:

    “I work as a reader for the Oxford English Dictionary,…”.

    That’s a job? With a salary?

    I fear that I may have just discovered that I’ve wasted my life….

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    Quite frankly, I am much less concerned with new words or semantic change (e.g. “egregious” used to mean something very good, now it means just the opposite) than the plague of “verbing.” Anyone can engage in “verbing” — turning nouns into verbs — and judging by the deluge of cringeworthy denominalizations (that’s what the word boffins call it) — they have. WS was a shameless practitioner — “l’ll unhair thy head,” exclaims his Cleopatra. Keyboarding ? Okay.. Efforting. If you must. But apparently we have barely scratched the surface of turning proper nouns into verbs. You have to effort to “Houdini” your way out of a sticky situation. Or to “Trump” up a Bit Lie. I wonder what sort of verb “Fowler” would transmute to ? And don’t get me started on runaway online acronyms and initialisms.

  7. Brooke says:

    As in she goes fowlering in autumn…
    Or they high fowlered him before operating…
    Or May was Fowlered at the conclusion of TLH…

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I believe that a ‘Fowler’ was someone who ‘fowled’ ie., hunted wild birds like Woodcock, and Snipe, etc.To down these birds they would use a large gun, called a ‘Fowling Piece’.
    The only other use of the name was a company which manufactured steam traction engines:
    “What’s your pair of ploughing engines, there, Jed?”
    “They be a couple of grut ol’ Fowlers, bor.” etc.

  9. Martin+Tolley says:

    We have so many words. And yet I find myself wanting/needing more. Among my many needs – what are those little hard, stiff, roundy thingies on the tips of shoelaces called?

  10. Jon says:


  11. Jo W says:

    # Martin
    They are called agletts. But I don’t know why.

  12. Martin+Tolley says:

    Jon, Jo, Thanks muchly. I wish I’d asked before.

  13. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Google tells me that aglet is derived from aiguillette, Old French for little needle.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    And yes — for those of us still wondering — aiguillette itself survives as the name of the aglets at the end of the cords on military dress uniforms. Now that we have (seemingly ?) exhausted the subject of aglets, shall we move on griffonage, sloppy handwriting, a particularly relevant matter as cursive writing becomes an endangered species ? Or, Kummerspeck, the excess weight gain from emotional eating? And then there is the outstanding rhinotillexomania or, obsessive nose-picking. Fortunately, no word yet from otolaryngologists as to what constitutes obsessive so — pick away. Finally, there’s pentheraphobia or, the fear of your mother-in-law. Somehow, the last two seem to go together.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    Btw — the technical term for many of M. Fowler’s invented words is “nonce.” No — nothing to do with the slang term. It is a word coined for a single occasion, like scandiknavery, which Joyce uses in Finnegans Wake.

  16. Frances says:

    I like the “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” which invents words to cover the sadder emotions we have but which don’t have a specific word to describe them. Example: occhiolism n.
    the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldn’t possibly draw any meaningful conclusions at all, about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and may end up being the control for a much wilder experiment happening in the next room.

  17. Helen+Martin says:

    Turning nouns into verbs, oh yes! I do watch sporting events occasionally and I cringe intensely at “medalling” which is what you do when you achieve a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place in a competition. I’m not sure why it wasn’t “podiate”. Of course, sports people are particularly loose in their language usage and it’s easy to see where medalling was sourced. (And that is another one, sourced, that is.)
    Doomscrolling is a fabulously wonderful word, which I am looking forward to using.

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    Off-topic and spoiler alert for those who, for some perverse reason, haven’t yet read “Oranges and Lemons.” What to make of Sidney ? I think an inspired choice for the “disruptor” M. Fowler appeared (to me) to be considering for a while now. High-functioning or a “force of nature” like her foil, AB ? The repartee itself thus far is worth the price of admission.I have to presume M. Fowler will continue the inspired banter (bickering ?) in “London Bridge is Falling Down,” and never let it descend to the level of (heaven forfend) sitcom dialogue. Certainly a good investment as a possible spin-off character to secure his old age.

  19. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I’m not sure why it wasn’t “podiate”.

    Helen, I’ve heard them say ‘podiummed’, which is even worse than ‘medalled’, I think.’

  20. Wayne+Mook says:

    Helen and those sports star would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling adults.

    I do have some books on forgotten words and one about some of the words from Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

    so here are a few.

    Anarch. (n) An author of confusion.

    Rhabdomancy (n) Divination by a wand.


  21. Helen+Martin says:

    Podiummed is definitely worse than medalled and is particularly ugly sounding as well. Is there no grace in their imaginings?

  22. Peter+T says:

    If it were podiate, wouldn’t the medals have to be awarded by chiropodists?

  23. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T Only if they’re for footy (stop us before we hurt ourselves…).

  24. Keith says:

    I love finding rare words (to me that is) in the Bryant and May books, and always have a dictionary at hand. Looking up a word on the Merriam Webster site there is a comment section where you are asked ‘what made you want to look up this word?’ And quite often I will find ‘in a book by Christopher Fowler’ 🙂

  25. Helen+Martin says:

    “always have a dictionary at hand.” Silly me, I assumed it would be a book.

  26. Wayne+Mook says:

    Stu I guess it would be OK for a foot race. For a motor race they could aspire to be on the top wheel arch.

    Of course for literature we would awards we would has rostrumming, (something suggestive done with oars – row-strumming, oh please yourselves.).

    I have heard of golding, in connection to a country in the Olympics, ‘They are trying to gold by getting them (a competitor.) disqualified. I don’t approve of this way of golding.’ It was on the BBC of all places by an ex-athlete.


  27. Stu-I-Am says:

    I’m all for recycling words, since it’s a well known fact that we’re running out of them and many have already fallen into endangered status with the advent of texting.With that in mind, I propose the “repurposing” of as many words as possible in a kind of shabby onomatopoetic-cum-semantic change way — and thus add to those very last alt., obs. or var. definitions at the bottom of dictionary listings. Words like:

    antic: appear to be moving around aimlessly with miniscule pieces of an unknown substance
    calamity: the result of eating a bad clam
    porcine: the Zodiac sector for your pet pig (or other porker…)
    tangent: a guy with skin darkened naturally or chemically — also known in some quarters as, Agent Orange (see: former US president)

    So, please do not heedlessly misuse or throw words away. Instead, when done, bring them to your nearest university English department. They’ll…uh…tell you what you can do with them.

  28. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Wayne + Mook Turn back NOW, before it’s too late…

  29. Wayne+Mook says:

    Stu I shall act bronzed off and retreat a safe distance.


  30. Paul C says:

    A hugely enjoyable book on this topic is The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language by Mark Forsyth. Recommended.

  31. Stu-I-Am says:

    A new word to add to your French lexicon (assuming you have one, of course) is “yaourter,” literally to “yoghurt.” But, as is well known, the French have a word or expression for absolutely everything so this one has nothing to do with the dairy product. It is used to describe singing or speaking in a language one either doesn’t know very well or has decided to fake. Much like English-speaking tourists attempting to make themselves understood by speaking English loudly in a Pepe Le Pew accent or worse, speaking what sound like actual words in the accent, accompanied by French mannerisms learned from Monty Python.

  32. Diane Workman says:

    I have just read these and had a lovely loud burst of laughter..frightened the husband…what word would be used to described this??
    I enjoy the Bryant and May books as much for the history as the characters…I love a book where I can see the characters as I read…
    Keep up the good work PLEASE mr Fowler!

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