Languages are living, breathing, mutating creatures. The English language of today is not the one of 1602 when, according to Paul Anthony Jones in The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words, “the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker coined the word love-libel – literally, ‘a handwritten admission of someone’s love’”. Or the English of the early 1400s when the striking word “recumbentibus” (which, like so many of the words Jones collected in his remarkable book, the spellcheck on my computer does not recognise!) was adopted into the language from Latin: “In its native Latin recumbentibus was used merely of the act of lounging or reclining, but when the word was adopted into English it was given a twist: English writers…began to use it to refer to forceful, knockout or knockdown blows”.
Despite linguistic evolution, many obscure words remain in the language, if not in everyday use then at least in Jones’s quirky bookish cabinet, home to such delightful words as “fedifragous” (an adjective describing a break of promise or a violation of oath), “spike-bozzle” (a verb meaning “to sabotage; to ruin or render ineffective”), “miraculate” (“to produce by a miracle”) or “eucatastrophe” (a noun for “a sudden and unexpected fortuitous event”).
The book comprises of 366 entries for every day of the calendar year, each with a tale attached to a particular date in history. The author traces each word’s etymology and tells a story illustrating its use. For 1 January, Jones chose the delightful word “quaaltagh”: “Proving there really is a word for everything, your quaaltagh is the first person you meet on New Year’s Day morning.” The noun was borrowed from Manx, “the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, in the early nineteenth century.” With its roots in the verb “quaail, meaning ‘to meet’ or ‘to assemble’, as it originally referred to a group of festive entertainers who would come together to gambol from door to door at Christmas or New Year singing songs and reciting poems”, a quaaltagh soon became a symbol for what the new year was about to bring: “dark-haired men were said to bring good luck, while fair-haired or fair-complexioned men (or, worst of all, fair-haired women) were said to bring bad luck – a curious superstition said to have its origins in the damage once wreaked by fair-haired Viking invaders.”
The words contained in Jones’s The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities are as fascinating as the stories accompanying them. Incidentally, the entry for 27 April, a date engraved on South African hearts, is “cosmonogy”, meaning “the creation of the universe”. The word was coined in the seventeenth century when thinkers of the time were beginning to reimagine and understand the nature of our solar system. In 1619, for example, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler postulated that “the universe…had come into existence on 27 April 4977 BC.” He was off by a few billion years for the universe, but I like the idea that he chose 27 April for a new beginning.
The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words
by Paul Anthony Jones
Elliott and Thompson, 2017
Review first published in the Cape Times on 9 March 2018.