John Foreman: Examining old words fun pastime for a 'pluviophile'

Six or seven years ago, I cobbled together a series of columns on common words that had simply disappeared from the lexicon.

Some of these referred to products no longer in use — like fender skirts or curb feelers. Others — more — had simply fallen out of style. It's a living language, they say, and as new words arise, others become objects of antiquity.

But words are not like yesterday's leisure suit. They are too rich, too beautiful, often too perfect to simply discard with the whims of fashion. We don't throw away Grandma's fine china because it's ill-suited for the microwave; we treasure its patina and provenance and use it when we can.

This was the best of all topics for a newspaper column. I stole the idea from a columnist with the Dallas Morning news, scribbled a few lines of my own and let you take over, peppering me weekly with turns of phrase too wonderful to discard — davenport, brassiere, lickety-split, hubba-hubba, percolator, ice box.

We even formed a special interest group, you and I, the Champaign-Urbana Society of People Intervening Against Diminished Oral References — CUSPIDOR, as we liked to be called.

This went on for some time, until embarrassment over not actually creating any columns myself overtook me. Yet, for months to come, readers surfaced fine old words on the endangered list — bobbi pins, overalls, supper. Just a few weeks ago, a friend suggested that "henchmen" is rarely used anymore. Likewise, "churlish."

Well it pleases me to report that another scribe has taken up our torch. One Lana Winter-Hebert recently penned a list of words — all solid Anglo-Saxon coinage — that have fallen from use, she said, somewhere between Shakespeare's time and the early 20th century.

I must say that I am a trifle skeptical in a couple of cases just how common that common usage actually was. One or two others, I think, must have disappeared quite some time before early 20th century.

That said, Sister Lana nonetheless offered up some fine terms. I repeat them here unapologetically.

"Bunbury," for example, is "an imaginary person whose name is used as an excuse for some purpose." Sports scribe Loren Tate used to recount occasional conversations with "Gus Phan" to introduce a topic in his column. Other writers occasionally evoke the common man with reference to "Joe Sixpack." Heretofore unbeknownst to me, these are "bunburries." It's a great word — if perhaps never a particularly common one. They do need to be something, these imaginary foils.

"Scurrilous." I may disagree with the good sister about the extent of this disappearance. But I live in Illinois, where we seek adjectives more aggressively than most places in order to describe our public servants.

"Gallimaufry." I confess that I am trusting the author when I tell you this is a noun to describe an unpleasant and unorthodox mingling. "The casserole was a veritable gallimaufry of beans, raisins, cauliflower and cheap wine." I now pledge to use this word on a daily basis.

"Thrice." It's true. Forget "once, twice, three times a lady" — whatever that means. When was the last time you heard: "The batter thrice allowed the ball to pass without swinging?" What a loss.

"Blithering." If you still use this with regularity, remember that you, too, are in Illinois and must grope the language to capture the reality of our elected class.

"Librocubularist" is one who reads in bed. "Pluviophile" is one who takes pleasure in rainy days. And "febricula" is a slight and transient fever.

All conditions worthy of a name, I'll concede. But common usage? Methinks Sister Jane didn't even find these in Shakespeare.

"Starrify." "sophronize" and "uglyography?" To deck with stars, to imbue sound moral principles and poor handwriting, in that order. The thought of regularly using these in sentences induces a bit of febricula in me.

But "namelings" is a dandy. Ask for John at The News-Gazette, and a number of different namelings may answer your call.

Here are some prizes I suspect Shakespeare did employ — if not many since. "Guttle" is to gobble greedily. It is a term easily adapted to describe those in Springfield. "Welkan" is the upper sky. "Barbigerous" refers to having a beard, as in the sentence: "Barbigerous men are sexier."

"Eventide" is a beautiful and useful word, replaced only by the pedestrian imprecision of "sunset."

Least likely to resume a role in the language? I'll go with "uhtcearan."

Spell check does not like this gem, which means to lie awake in worry in the period just before dawn. When, after all, is the last time you needed a phrase for this?

I'm omitting a couple of Ms. Winter-Hebert's other offerings, just so you have reason to go hunt up her original penning on the Internet. But I cannot leave without sharing two more of particular utility.

A "snollyguster" is a person, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than consistent, respectable principles. How could we lose this? Don't be surprised if you begin seeing it with regularity on our editorial page. How absolutely perfect. The Land of Larceny in which we abide is crowded, after all, with scurrilous snollygusters.

And speaking of opinion pages, I save for you a noun that may be most helpful in future discussion — "ultracrepidarianism," defined for us as "the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one's knowledge."

A tip of the snap-brim fedora, Sister Lana. I shall henceforth attempt to refrain.

John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette, can be reached by email at jforeman@news-gazette.com or at P.O. Box 677 in Champaign.

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