Do words have “lives”? It is imaginable: there’s birth (coinage), marriage (combinations, phrases, “portmanteau-words”), family (the spreading tree of etymological development), old age (the dread notation Obs[olete]) and death (excision from common speech and from all but the largest dictionaries). And some of these lives are workaday, dug in for the long haul, others are flashily ephemeral, fashionable and momentary; some are barely visible: one of the longest, some 1,913 letters naming a protein and its attendant amino acids is unknown outside the laboratory.
In his new book Michael Quinion, having dealt, one might suggest, with the linguistic cradle in Port Out, Starboard Home (2004), his study of the origins of many popular phrases, has now turned to its grave: those words that have left the language, or which, if not wholly absent, exist only as historicisms and curiosities, useful no doubt for the authors of cod-Victoriana and similar pastiches, but definitely long since removed from the menu of contemporary speech.
As he points out in his informative introduction, the reasons for words leaving the language are widespread, and the lists of the lost are potentially huge; to tackle the entire lexis would be exhausting for both researcher and reader: “you wouldn’t be able to lift the resulting volume”. Thus he has chosen to concentrate on five areas: food and drink, health and medicine, entertainment and leisure, transport and fashion, and names, communications and employment. Each of these is in turn subdivided: transport and fashion for instance offers information on carriages, “ruffs and cuffs and farthingales”, the names of cloth, and of wigs and hats.
As should be obvious, what links all these sections is that the material under consideration is not merely dead words, but also outmoded terminology. Eidothaumata, a form of “magic lantern” show, a maidenmaker, the human operator of a primitive washing machine, and the natty scratch, a form of short wig, are all underpinned by a common response; we don’t do things like that any more. The areas of life to which they pertain — visual entertainment, laundry and hairdressing — continue to flourish, but the equipment is quite different. Even the card and other games that Gallimaufry lists are certainly no longer played — or if they are, then the names, again, are quite new.
Why does one word last and another disappear? When the technology dies, so too do its descriptors. Such is the underpinning of Gallimaufry’s memorials, whose disappearance, however regrettable, represents a form of backhanded tribute to progress. “Not needed on voyage”, as trunks marked for the hold rather than the cabin were labelled on similarly defunct transatlantic liners.
This is a fascinating book, full of the kind of authoritative information his readers have come to expect, and my only regret is that, as acknowledged, Mr Quinion has resisted slang. Gallimaufry (which aside from meaning a medley or a dish made from leftovers also meant, in slang, both a mistress and what her seventeenth-century admirers might have termed her “aphrodisiacal tennis court”) is a worthy successor to POSH and underlines Michael Quinion’s pre-eminence as an expositor of etymology. It is, as they used to say around 1820, the “bang-up prime twig” and a positive “tippy”.
[Michael Quinion, Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary; published by Oxford University Press in September 2006; hardcover; ISBN 0198610629, pp272; Publisher’s price in the UK £12.99 and in the US $25.00. More details.]