In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones
I love books of language trivia, and learning new words is always a pleasure. One of the finest Twitter accounts to offer a ‘word of the day’ is @HaggardHawks, run by Paul Anthony Jones, author of several fascinating books on language and a real logognost (one who knows words – actually, I just Googled to see if that word exists and apparently it doesn’t, but it should: we have the word ‘bibliognost’ for one who knows books). His new book, The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words, is a treasure-trove of rare words – arranged so that each page considers a different word and explores its connection to a day of the year. Here are five of my favourites – though there were many more I could have chosen.
Quaaltagh (1 January). The first person you meet on New Year’s Day. This word found its way into English from Manx, the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, and is pronounced ‘quoll-tukh’. The word originally described a group of entertainers who would travel door to door during Christmas or New Year, singing songs and reciting poems. Since they often did this on New Year’s Eve and during the early hours of New Year’s Day, there was a good chance, as Paul Anthony Jones points out, that the leader of the quaaltagh would prove an omen for the year to come. And this is how the word quaaltagh came to denote the first person you saw on New Year’s Day.
Limerence (14 February). This is an ideal word to learn for Valentine’s Day: as Jones notes, it’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the state of being romantically infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterised by a strong desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings’. ‘Limerence’ was coined in the 1970s by the American professor of psychology Dorothy Tennov, who used it in the title of her 1979 book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. Limerence is what it feels like to be in love, or to be infatuated with someone: the word ‘love’ doesn’t quite cover that peculiar feeling that takes over us when we’re struck by Cupid’s arrow. Tennov acknowledged that there was no etymological rhyme or reason to the word ‘limerence’: it just ‘looks nice’. (She had originally toyed with using the word ‘amorance’, but we agree that ‘limerence’ is nicer.)
Dorbellist (1 April). For April Fools’ Day, what better word than this? A ‘dorbellist’ is a fool or a dull-witted dolt. Jones’s entry for this word, though, also tells us the fascinating (probable) origin of the word ‘fool’ itself: thought to be derived from the blacksmith’s bellows, follis, it was then applied by extension to a chattering windbag, and eventually, an ‘empty-headed dolt’. ‘Dorbel’ and ‘dorbellism’/‘dorbellist’ are derived from Nicolas d’Orbellis, a fifteenth-century French theologian who was one of the followers of Duns Scotus (from whom, incidentally, we get the word ‘dunce’). Because d’Orbellis followed Duns Scotus’s outdated theories, he was considered a bit of a dunce; and d’Orbellis’ own name became a byword for foolishness.
Demonagerie (31 October). This word, meaning ‘a demonic menagerie’, is perfect for Halloween – denoting as it does a collection of monsters or demonic spirits. In his entry for this word (and day), Jones also reveals that the ‘mare’ of ‘nightmare’ is ‘a spirit supposed to crouch on the chest of a sleeping person and give them bad dreams or a feeling of suffocation as they sleep.’
Handsel (31 December). A ‘handsel’ is a New Year’s gift, which is given to wish good luck for the year ahead. The word derives from the Old English for ‘hand’ (which is, you’ve probably guessed, ‘hand’) and the word selen meaning ‘gift’ or ‘donation’, which is related to our modern word ‘sell’.
I chose these five because they have specific relevance to festivals in the calendar, but one of the best things about The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities is that it’s not just a book about words. It’s also full of surprising and fascinating historical facts more generally, whether it relates to the history of the game Monopoly (the British Secret Service asked John Waddington to produce a compact version of the game which contained real street maps and real cash, which could be passed on to prisoners of war during WWII) or to early space travel (the Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who was the second man to orbit the Earth, was also the first man to vomit in space). These striking little pieces of trivia are featured in the entries, respectively, for ‘dyvoury’ (bankruptcy or financial ruin) and ‘wamble-cropped’ (meaning nauseated).
The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words, as the picture above demonstrates, is beautifully designed (that shade of blue is wonderful), and perfect either for dipping into every morning to learn a new word of the day, or for reading at a rather more headlong pace, as I found I was doing once I dipped my head into this wonderful cabinet of language trivia. This blog post was made responsible thanks to an advance review copy from the publisher, Elliott & Thompson; the book is out next week.