In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys a new lexicon of useful words for troubled times
We live in strange and worrying times. If hindsight, as Billy Wilder once said, is always 20:20, then our own hindsight on 2020 will surely be dominated by widespread unrest, a global pandemic, and that word previous associated more with prisons and areas of lawlessness: ‘lockdown’. There are several words which have come to the fore in 2020, not least the (already outdated-sounding) ‘COVID-19’, to say nothing of the (already exceedingly annoying) ‘new normal’ and (wildly inaccurate) ‘social distancing’. Perhaps word-historians of the future will write whole books on ‘the language of 2020’.
In the meantime, Paul Anthony Jones has come up with the perfect book of unusual and useful words that speak to our current times. The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times was begun long before the word ‘COVID-19’ was etched onto everyone’s brain, but its publication coincided – happily, albeit in the unhappiest of circumstances – with the pandemic and its ensuing chaos. Jones has a moving introduction to the book describing the book’s much more personal origins, and explaining how words can be a comfort to us in times of trouble or grief.
Paul Anthony Jones is, along with Mark Forsyth, the foremost word-archaeologist writing for a popular audience today: I’ve previously reviewed his tour of the world through interesting word origin-stories, his book about words which have drastically altered their meanings over time, and his delightful collection of words related to different days in the calendar. Now, in The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times (Elliott & Thompson, to whom I am thankful for a review copy), the focus is on words that reflect worry, sleeplessness, grief, uncertainty, and general bad moods. The result is a thoroughly engrossing book that brings back to life an array of forgotten words that describe our own strange and unsettling times with often uncanny accuracy.
For instance, did you know there’s a word for something done on the spur of the moment? It’s an autoschediasm. Admittedly, as Jones himself acknowledges, it’s a bit of a mouthful, as is sphexishness, a word derived from wasps, which refers to mindless and robotic behaviour that may appear conscious or intelligent but isn’t. But others are catchier: a dirty-gully is a messy and disorganised worker (the word originally referred to a butcher’s assistant), mubble-fubbles was a sixteenth-century term for feeling out of sorts, while to get into Friday-street denotes falling behind on your work and leaving it all to the last moment. Meanwhile, a villeggiatura, a word borrowed from the Italian, is a trip to a country retreat to escape ‘the busyness of everyday life’.
One of the most rewarding things about The Cabinet of Calm is how many useful and unusual words Jones crams into one entry. So, for instance, although I was already familiar with the glorious word growlery – it’s a word coined by Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1853) to describe Mr Jarndyce’s room, to which he retires when he’s feeling ‘out of humour’ and wants to ‘growl’ somewhere – many words which feature in Jones’s entry for ‘growlery’ were new to me. For instance, someone who is ‘crabbily ill-natured or in a bad mood’ might be described as zowerzopped (a Devonshire dialect word which literally means ‘sour-sapped’), while bocksturrocks – a Scottish dialect word of mysterious origin – is another word for a foul mood. However, what I didn’t know, and Jones put me right on this, is that although Dickens was the first to use growlery to refer to a room for ‘growling’ in, the word growlery actually predates him, when used to describe the sound of grumbling or complaining.
If this suggests that Jones knows his stuff, then you’d be right in thinking so. He’s clearly done his research, and for a number of years now he’s done what most of us would lack the will or patience to do: go through obscure dialect and slang dictionaries from cover to cover, noting down interesting terms which are ripe for sharing on social media (his Twitter account is hugely popular, and one of the few accounts on there that are still worth reading) or for gathering together under some theme, as he’s done so here for the purposes of this book.
With the world in the state it’s currently in, many of us may struggle to enjoy a sound night’s sleep. And Jones’s entry on self-soothe contains an array of curious words on the subject, from the rather cumbersome seventeenth-century word inquiescentialiness to denote the lack of peace and quiet needed to fall asleep (one can see why that one never caught on, in fairness), to the more memorable matutolypea, meaning the feeling of grumpiness or downheartedness experienced first thing in the morning. Such words may not help one to feel better first thing in the morning, but they do what the language does best: they give us the words to express and understand how we feel. They also reassure us that, down the centuries, others have experienced the same. If you’re lucky enough to be a wakerife – someone who can function on only a few hours’ sleep – you will also find words here that speak to your personality and constitution. Here’s to a time when we can all enjoy a cataphor again – a deep and utterly undisturbed sleep.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.