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A Dictionary of Unusual and Preposterous Words

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revels in the arcane lexicography of Mrs Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words

The word deboswellize means ‘to deprecate someone in a biography’. It’s derived from James Boswell, the celebrated biographer of Samuel Johnson. Anaxiphilia means ‘the act of falling in love with someone entirely inappropriate, by someone who should know better’. More emotive, and dripping with unspoken and tragic hopelessness, is the word anacampserote, which refers to ‘something which can bring back a lost love.’

None of these three words is likely to be on the tongues (or in the minds) of the average reader, and they were new to me until I recently encountered them, in Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual Obscure and Preposterous Words: Gathered from Numerous and Diverse Authoritative Sources, which may just be the most endlessly fascinating and entertaining lexicon I’ve yet encountered. (I’ll except the Oxford English Dictionary here, and possibly Johnson’s dictionary, on the grounds that they are beyond question in the fascination stakes for the sheer vastness of their achievement.) Read the rest of this entry

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Reverend Spooner, Father of the Spoonerism

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the life of the man immortalised by the spoonerism

Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was a physically striking man. An albino with pink skin and white hair, he became affectionately known as the Child by students at New College, the Oxford college of which Spooner became warden in 1903. (His wife Frances became known as the Madonna, hence their inevitable collective nickname of Madonna and Child.) By all accounts, Spooner was a kindly man who insisted, in the face of indignant opposition, that the college’s war memorial should list the names of the German dead alongside the college members who had given their lives in the Great War.

But this has all been lost from the popular consciousness – if it ever resided there – and Spooner’s name and legacy have firmly centred on the ‘spoonerism’ – a word attested from The Globe magazine in London from 1900, and defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words’. Interestingly, though, the OED’s next citation for the word ‘spoonerism’, from a Notes and Queries article of 1923, suggests that Spooner may have given his name to a word-game that was much older than him: Read the rest of this entry

10 Surprising Words That Drastically Changed Their Meanings Over Time

Words that used to mean something very different

We’ll own up right at the start: the ten words below were suggested to us by the latest book we’ve been reading, Paul Anthony Jones’s The Accidental Dictionary: The Remarkable Twists and Turns of English Words. Jones’s previous books – one of which we included in our pick of the best and most interesting books about the English language – have taken a look at the curious and often surprising histories of English words, and his new book is no different. We were fortunate enough to be the recipients of an advance review copy of the book; it’s out in the UK next week. Below are ten surprising words which quite drastically altered their meanings at some point in the past, and now mean something very different from their original definitions.

AMBIDEXTROUS. This word, Jones reveals in his book, originally meant ‘duplicitous’ or ‘deceitful’, when it first appeared in the English language in the sixteenth century. An ‘ambidexter’, meanwhile, was a dishonest lawyer. Why? Because he would accept a payment from both sides of a legal dispute. Read the rest of this entry