For a word nerd, there is very little that’s more fun than discovering new words … unless it’s rediscovering old words.
A Shakespeare play or Tolkien tome is pure heaven to those of us who revel in what others may consider as simply a quaint reminder of olden times. And yes, I did spend part of the holiday weekend watching The Hobbit trilogy. A girl’s gotta keep up her nerd cred.
I was reminded of the joy of archaic words by the mention, during a very entertaining monologue on homophones, of “cock-a-hoop” on the comment boards of the newspaper last week. According to Merriam-Webster, the word means “very excited or happy about something done” … and get your minds out of the gutter, please. It’s bad enough that the system at work flagged “cock” each time as forbidden. I feel sorry for anyone writing a restaurant review on Cock of the Walk.
“Cock-a-hoop” dates at least to the mid-17th Century (some sources say 16th Century and earlier); the online Oxford Dictionary notes its lineage as “from the phrase ‘set cock a hoop,’ of unknown origin, apparently denoting the action of turning on the tap and allowing liquor to flow (prior to a drinking session).”
Liquor will do that … not that I’d really know, though, since I don’t drink; I can only draw from the witnessed lowered inhibitions of others. Sometimes being the only sober person in the room is a hilarious and eye-opening experience.
World Wide Words, in further exploring cock-a-hoop’s origin, finds a variant spelling that muddles the works, including a reference to Frodo in The Return of the King, the third part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy: “Swagger it, swagger it, my little cock-a-whoop.” The first recorded guess about its origin, it notes, was by Thomas Blount in 1670, who surmised that “cock” referred to the spigot (which resembled a rooster’s comb) on a hooped cask, and removing the spigot from the cask and laying it on one of its hoops signaled that all were to drink and make merry.
Perhaps that’s where hula hoops got their start … just a theory.
The Phrase Finder somewhat discounts Blount’s theory, and puts forth the theory of it being based on pub signs from the 1300s picturing a chicken and a hoop. However, it still doesn’t find anything any more definitive on its origin, admitting that we may never know.
One of the things I so love about archaic words is how evocative so many of them are. When I hear “apothecary” or “anon,” I’m taken back to Romeo and Juliet. “Fie” and “forsooth” transport me to Sherwood Forest (the one in Nottingham, not Sherwood, Ark.).
Darragh McManus, in a 2013 Guardian article, named one of his favorites:
“I love old words anyway, and those moments when you stumble upon one that’s strange to you. It’s especially nice if the word itself is, well, especially nice. For instance, ‘slumbrously,’ which I came across recently in a review—what a gorgeous assemblage of letters and sounds. ‘Slumbrously’ … you can almost physically feel the sensation of drifting into sleep, sinking drowsily onto a soft pillow in a cradle of dreaming.”
I feel pretty much the same about “persnickety,” which (to me, anyway) brings to mind an overly fastidious and picky person with a perpetually pinched, sour expression … perhaps a maiden aunt in a Mark Twain story. And yes, I do know it’s not quite archaic, and if I have anything to do with it, it never will be. Ditto for “tump,” “kerfuffle,” “discombobulated” …
Yeah, I could go on all day.
I’m far from the only one who would love for some of these old words lying fallow in our language to find new life. There are even “listicles” (man, do I hate that new word) on sites like BuzzFeed; among its votes for words to bring back: “grumpish” (pretty much what it sounds like) and “cockalorum” (a little man with a high opinion of himself).
Sounds like a lot of politicians I could name.
Sure, there are words that quite rightly belong in the past (like “dasypygal,” which means having a hairy butt … ewww), some from within the past few decades (I’m lookin’ at you, “twerk”).
Those, though, aren’t a joy to voice, like, say, “hugger-mugger” (meaning in a state of confusion or disarray, or to act in a secretive manner), or “beef-witted” (stupid, imbecilic).
Yes, “beef-witted” is definitely joining my vocabulary. Imagine the possibilities …
There are also words that just make you sound pompous, such as “legerdemain” (deceit or sleight of hand); “atelier” (an artist’s studio or workroom); or “scrofulous” (immoral). If you’re trying to create the feel of an earlier era, that’s one thing. If you’re dropping them into random, everyday conversations only to prove you know how to open a dictionary, then yep, you’re being pompous.
Of course, if you use them incorrectly, you mark yourself not as pompous, but as a pretender.
As far as old, unused words go, I’m hoping “brabble,” which means to argue loudly about something inconsequential, takes off anew. It already has, in a way, with a 2-year-old social media app … which when you think about it, is exceedingly appropriate. Where else but social media will you find so many people arguing about so very, very little, only mere trifles?