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50 Old British Dialect Words We Should Bring Back

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In 1905, the Oxford University Press published the sixth and final volume of The English Dialect Dictionary, a compilation of local British words and phrases dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. The EDD set out to record all those words used too sparsely and too locally to make the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, and by 1905, more than 70,000 entries from right across the British Isles had been compiled, defined, and explained. The entire enterprise was personally overseen (and, in its early stages at least, partly funded) by Joseph Wright, a self-taught linguist and etymologist who went from attending French and Latin night classes while working in a textiles factory to becoming Professor of Philology at Oxford University. Although Wright published a number of other works during his lifetime, The English Dialect Dictionary is by far his greatest achievement, and is still regarded as one of the finest dictionaries of its type.

The 50 words listed here are all genuine entries taken from Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary as well as a number of other equally fantastic local British glossaries, including John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), Francis Grose’s Glossary of Provincial and Local Words Used in England (1787), and John Ray’s Collection of South and East-Country Words (1691). Ranging from the bizarre to the useful, they all would make a brilliant addition to anyone’s vocabulary.

1. APTYCOCK: A quick-witted or intelligent young man. (SW England)

2. BANG-A-BONK: It might not look like it, but this is a verb meaning “to sit lazily on a riverbank.” (Gloucestershire)

3. BAUCHLE: A name for an old worn out shoe, and in particular one that no longer has a heel—although it was also used figuratively to refer to a pointless or useless person. (Ireland)

4. CLIMB-TACK: A cat that likes to walk along high shelves or picture rails is a climb-tack. (Yorkshire)

5. CLOMPH: To walk in shoes which are too large for your feet. (Central England)

6. CRAMBO-CLINK: Also known as crambo-jink, this is a word for poor quality poetry—or, figuratively, a long-winded and ultimately pointless conversation. (Scots)

7. CRINKIE-WINKIE: A groundless misgiving, or a poor reason for not doing something. (Scots)

8. CRUM-A-GRACKLE: Any awkward or difficult situation. (SW England)

9. CRUMPSY: Short-tempered and irritable. Probably a local variation of “grumpy.” (Central England)

10. CUDDLE-ME-BUFF: Why call it beer when you can call it cuddle-me-buff? (Yorkshire)

11. CULF: The loose feathers that come out of a mattress or cushion—and which “adhere to the clothes of any one who has lain upon it,” according to Wright. (Cornwall)

12. CURECKITYCOO: To coo like a dove—or, figuratively, to flirt and canoodle with someone. (Scots)

13. DAUNCY: If someone looks noticeably unwell, then they’re dauncy. Originally an Irish and northern English word, this eventually spread into colloquial American English in the 19th century. (Ireland)

14. DOUP-SCUD: Defined by Wright as “a heavy fall on the buttocks.” (NE Scots)

15. EEDLE-DODDLE: A person who shows no initiative in a crisis. Also used as an adjective to mean “negligent,” or “muddle-headed.” (Scots)

16. FAUCHLE: Fumbling things and making mistakes at work because you’re so tired? That’s fauchling. (Scots)

17. FLENCH: When the weather looks like it’s going to improve but it never does, then it’s flenched. (Scots)

18. FLOBY-MOBLY: The perfect word for describing the feeling of not being unwell, but still not quite feeling your best. A Scots equivalent was atweesh-an-atween. (Central England)

19. HANSPER: Pain and stiffness felt in the legs after a long walk. (Scots)

20. INISITIJITTY: A worthless, ridiculous looking person. (Central England)

21. JEDDARTY-JIDDARTY: Also spelled jiggerdy-jaggardy. Either way it means entwined or tangled. (NW England)

22. LENNOCHMORE: A larger-than-average baby. Comes from the Gaelic leanabh mor, meaning “big child.” (Scots)

23. LIMPSEY: Limp and flaccid, often used in reference to someone just before they faint. Originally from the easternmost counties of England, but borrowed into the United States in the 1800s—Walt Whitman and Harriet Beecher Stowe both used it in their writing. (East England)

24. MUNDLE: As a verb, mundle means to do something clumsily, or to be hampered or interrupted while trying to work. As a noun, a mundle is a cake slice or a wooden spatula—to lick the mundle but burn your tongue means to do something enjoyable, regardless of the consequences. (Central England)

25. NAWPY: A new pen. (Lincolnshire)

26. NIPPERKIN: A small gulp or draught of a drink, said to be roughly equal to one-eighth of a pint. (SW England)

27. OMPERLODGE: To disagree with or contradict someone. (Bedfordshire)

28. OUTSPECKLE: A laughing stock. (Scots)

29. PADDY-NODDY: A long and tedious story. (Lincolnshire)

30. PARWHOBBLE: To monopolize a conversation. (SW England)

31. PEG-PUFF: Defined as “a young woman with the manners of an old one.” (Northern England)

32. POLRUMPTIOUS: Raucous. Rude. Disruptive. Polrumptious. (Kent)

33. QUAALTAGH: The first person you see after you leave your house. Comes from an old Celtic New Year tradition in which the first person you see or speak to on the morning of January 1, the quaaltagh, was interpreted as a sign of what was to come in the year ahead. (Isle of Man)

34. RAZZLE: To cook something so that the outside of it burns, but the inside of it stays raw. You can also razzle yourself by warming yourself by a fire. (Yorkshire/East England)

35. SHACKBAGGERLY: An adjective describing anything left “in a loose, disorderly manner.” (Lincolnshire)

36. SHIVVINESS: The uncomfortable feeling of wearing new underwear. Shiv is an old word for thick, coarse wool or linen. (Yorkshire)

37. SILLERLESS: Literally “silverless”—or, in other words, completely broke. (Scots)

38. SLITHERUM: A dawdling, slow-moving person. (East England)

39. SLIVING: A thin slice of bread or meat, or a splinter of wood. (Yorkshire)

40. SLOCHET: To walk with your shoes nearly coming off your feet. Or to walk with your shoelaces untied. Or to walk slowly because your shoes are too big. (SW England)

41. SPINKIE-DEN: A woodland clearing full of flowers. (Scots)

42. TEWLY-STOMACHED: On its own, tewly means weak or sickly, or overly sensitive or delicate. Someone who is tewly-stomached has a weak stomach, or a poor constitution. (East England)

43. THALTHAN: Also spelled tholthan, a thalthan is a part-derelict building. (Isle of Man)

44. TITTY-TOIT: To spruce or tidy up. (Yorkshire)

45. UNCHANCY: Sometimes used to mean mischievous or unlucky, but also used to describe something potentially dangerous, or, according to Wright, “not safe to meddle with.” (Northern England)

46. VARGLE: Means either to work in a messy or untidy way, or to perform an unpleasant task. (Scots)

47. VARTIWELL: The little metal loop that the latch of a gate hooks into? That’s the vartiwell. According to the OED, it probably takes its name from an old French word for the bottom hinge of a gate, vervelle. (Eastern England)

48. WEATHER-MOUTH: A bright, sunny patch of sky on the horizon flanked by two dense banks of cloud is the weather-mouth. (Scots)

49. YAWMAGORP: A yawm is a yawn, and a gorp is a mouth. So a yawmagorp is a lounger or idler, or someone who seems constantly to be yawning and stretching wearily. (Yorkshire)

50. ZWODDER: The last entry in the English Dialect Dictionary describes “a drowsy, stupid state of body or mind.” It’s probably related to another word, swadder, used to mean “to grow weary with drinking.” (SW England)

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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