14 Wonderful Old Words for Walking We Should Bring Back

Artist: Lucien Davis // Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Artist: Lucien Davis // Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Now that spring is here, no matter how committed you are to cars, it’s hard to resist an occasional mosey or stroll. Whether you prefer ambling through the park or zigzagging down a busy sidewalk, this is a lovely time to hoof it. Lucky for us all, the history of English has plenty of rare or forgotten words for walking that will put a glide in your stride.

1. AND 2. SNAFFLE AND SOODLE

These fanciful-sounding words have no definitive origin: They probably just sounded right to someone who was sauntering, which is what they both mean. An Oxford English Dictionary (OED) example from 1821 describes someone “soodling up and down the street.”

3. NOCTAMBULATE

If you sleepwalk—or just like to stroll about after dark—you have a tendency to noctambulate, or walk around at night.

4. SNUDGE

The first sense of snudging refers to being cheap, stingy, miserly, and Scrooge-like. Such penny-pinching behavior isn’t associated with great posture, and perhaps that’s why the word later referred to walking with a bit of a stoop. An English-French dictionary from 1677 captures the essence of snudgery: “To Snudge along, or go like an old Snudge, or like one whose Head is full of business.” Snudging is a little like trudging.

5. PLODGE

The Scottish and English word plodging has been wading through the lexical muck and mire since the late 1700s, and it refers to icky, slow, molasses-type walking. Plodge is probably a variation of plod. This word isn’t totally out of use, as a 1995 use from British magazine The Countryman illustrates: “Northbound Pennine Wayfarers, plodging through the interminable peat-bogs of the North Pennines.” Even if you have a spring in your step, it’s tough to skip merrily through the peat-bogs.

6. STROAM

Do you like to stroll? Are you a fan of roaming? Then you should give stroaming a try. This is a word blend, just like brunch. In her 1796 novel Camilla, Frances Burney described a character who “stroamed into the ball-room, with the most visible marks of his unfitness for appearing in it.” The OED indicates that stroaming involves “long strides” and/or idleness, so watch your form and attitude when out on a stroam.

7. ANTEAMBULATE

This word sounds like it refers to the action of a rude ruffian: walking smack dab in front of someone. Actually, the word is as polite as a pancake: In the 1600s, anteambulate referred to walking in front of someone to show them the way, like an usher.

8. CAT-FOOT

Cats aren’t known for clomping around like Clydesdales; they’re stealthy. That’s why cat-footing refers to walking that’s more subtle and graceful than that of the average oaf. In Harry L. Wilson’s 1916 book Somewhere in Red Gap, this word appears in characteristic fashion: “…I didn't yell any more. I cat-footed. And in a minute I was up close.” Cat-footing is a requirement for a career as a cat burglar.

9. NUDDLE

Back in the 1500s, nuddle had a few meanings that congregated low to the ground: To nuddle was to push something along with your nose or nudge forward in some other horizontal manner. By the 1800s, nuddle started referring to stooped walking, the kind of non-jaunty mosey in which someone’s head is hanging low. You can hear a touch of contempt in a phrase from an 1854 glossary by A. E. Baker: “How he goes nuddling along.”

10. AREOBATE

This rare word comes to us from translations of Greek playwright Aristophanes: It literally means to walk on the air, but actually means to walk as if on air. What a perfect word for buoyant sauntering, after, say, receiving good news.

11. PEDESTRIANATE

This word has been around since the mid-1800s. Here it is in an 1864 issue of the journal Notes & Queries: “I have been pedestrianating through a corner of Oxfordshire.”

12. AND 13. SHOGGLE AND WARPLE

Since the 1500s, shoggle has been a word for various sorts of shaking—no wonder it became a word for unsteady walking in the 1800s. Zombies and toddlers are big shogglers. Another term sometimes applied to such precarious ambling is warpling.

14. OVERSUPINATE

People who jog, run, and sprint have their share of problems that slow-moving people can barely comprehend. One is oversupination. As the OED defines it, to oversupinate is “To run or walk so that the weight falls upon the outer sides of the feet to a greater extent than is necessary, desirable, etc.” A 1990 Runner’s World article gets to the crux of the problem: “It's hard to ascertain exactly what percentage of the running population oversupinates, but it's a fraction of the people who think they do.”

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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