Yesterday while my friend Andy and I discussed our favorite author, Mark Twain, our conversation wandered into the topic of old and obsolete words. This happened, in part, due to the fact that Twain was a master wordsmith. Much of his writing is adorned with such gems as penurious, paraxysm, and hornswoggle. Just saying them out loud caused Andy to chortle with amusement.
My friend said he feels that modern, everyday English has ossified into blandness. He thinks we can bring back some of the old words by unobtrusively using them in our writing and conversation.
I mentioned that we could be subtle by not using words that are too arcane in our speech. One word for anger that I miss is cross–as in, “Mrs. Smith became cross with her son.” Cross, in this form, is a stealth word because it is a single syllable term that is easy to understand in context. A person can use this word sparingly without risking ridicule.
Andy imagined that everyday language must have been more beautiful when Old English was spoken. That is when English still used gendered nouns and adjectives the way that other European languages still do. Take the German names for flatware eating utensils as examples: der Löffel–the spoon, die Gabel–the fork, and das Messer–the knife. Löffel is masculine; Gabel is feminine; and Messer is neuter. When we English speakers get past the frustration of gendered nouns, we find them fascinating.
Another reason why so many people find language so engaging is the evolution of words. Andy found a chart demonstrating that some of our common, frequently used words used to have different predominant definitions. The most puzzling one is “sad”, because it did not used to mean unhappy. The old definition for “manage” seems like a pun because it was used when a boy became a man. Now, anybody can learn to manage.
Andy turned the subject back to words we seldom use anymore. He patted his beer-belly and said he could describe himself as having a manly, rotund build.
We soon made a game of remembering other odd, old words that could be used in regular conversation without the risk of others judging us as effete. Some of them include:
outlandish-as in strange or unusual
morass-a situation that traps, impedes, or confuses
intemperate–excessive use of control substances
hooligan and miscreant–as a wrongdoer
balderdash-for nonsense or BS
harbinger, foreshadow, presage-to signal the approach of something
ravishing and enchanting-as in extremely beautiful
unassailable-for undoubtable or unquestionable
waggle-to shake or wobble while moving
nowadays-for these days
Andy and I came up with dozens of others and felt mirthful whilst doing so. We agreed that words like these should come back in style with the caveat that they be used sparingly.