30 March 2021 3

Out with the Old! Dusting Off Some Near-extinct English Words


In a recent article, we took a look at some of the new words that have entered the lexicon in the past few years, and how language is constantly evolving. But, as in the animal kingdom, where exciting new species are discovered every year, it is inevitable that the opposite also occurs and there are some extinctions too. Certain words become casualties, cut from the dictionary as others crowd them out. (Although only in the concise editions of dictionaries. Fun fact: the Oxford English Dictionary will never actually remove a word.)

In this article, we reverse our approach and take a light-hearted look at some older words that have fallen out of favour. Join us as we shine a curious beam back in time to illuminate some fascinating words that are now all but obsolete.

Enter Shakespeare, Stage Left

Ah, Shakespeare – the most famous of all users of the English language! Read or watch any of his 500-year-old comedies, tragedies or romances and, complex as it may seem, much of the flowing, exuberant vernacular can still be understood even half a century after he penned it.

Although terms such as ‘knavish’, ‘malapert’ and ‘prithee’ fell out of use many moons ago, it is not hard to understand the gist of his masterfully crafted stories when you absorb the full context, whether the characters are plucking at beards or eating last year’s pippin apples. And Shakespeare’s insults still pack a mighty punch – how would you like to be called a ‘bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog’ (The Tempest) or a ‘bolting-hutch of beastliness … swollen parcel of dropsies … stuffed cloak-bag of guts’ (Henry IV, Part 1)?

Although many of the words in Shakespeare’s plays are no longer used today, their meaning and power are still clear – and the insults are enough to leave anyone speechless!

A Glimpse into the Past

Rediscovering different words that have fallen out of use provides a tantalising glimpse into the past – an insight into the concerns and preoccupations of our great-great-grandparents. Take a look at this abbreviated A–Z; roll the words around your tongue and be transported back in time.

  • Appetency – a longing or desire
  • Bantling – a child
  • Bruit – a rumour
  • Caducity – infirmity or senility
  • Fandangle – either an ornament or a load of nonsense
  • Glabrous – hairless
  • Swarf – stone or metal grit
  • Tosticated – befuddled (which is a splendid word in its own right!)
  • Zanella – a mixed twill fabric for covering umbrellas (although, look it up on the internet and all you will find is Italian men’s trousers)

Try using one of these words in your conversations today – though prepare to be met with some befuddled (or tosticated?) looks!

Click here for more examples of curious archaic words.

The Lighter Side of Language

There is something about obsolete historical terms that conjures up a certain atmosphere or feeling. The following words hint at the veritable soap opera that must have constituted some of the romantic relationships of the past:

  • Carl – a man of low birth (I wonder how many men called Carl know this?)
  • Cicisbeo – a married woman’s lover
  • Picaroon – a cheat; one who lives by their wits
  • Wittol – a man who tolerates his wife’s infidelity

Finally, inspired by Shakespeare’s inventive invective, why not try memorising a few of these imaginative terms for ‘idiot’ when you are searching for an insult and modern words fail you (‘ninnyhammer’ is quite a fun one!). Of course, we do not recommend saying these aloud…

Just as new words are always enriching the English language – and all global languages – as a result of social, cultural and scientific influences, old words inevitably fall away over time. It is the natural ebb and flow of language that makes it so interesting and dynamic, which is why learning a language is a lifelong adventure well worth embarking upon.

If you are interested in learning a language or upskilling your team through language training, please contact us today to find out how we can help. All our courses can be taught online, and we can customise our courses to meet your training needs.

There are 3 comments:

  1. Helen Michael - 30th March 2021 at 6:51 pm

    Love it 🙂 Thank you for sharing this entertaining and illuminating piece.

  2. Naomi Tapsell - 31st March 2021 at 7:03 pm

    Absolutely delighted to read this and be reminded that the love of and interest in the English language is thriving. Your message made my day and I hope to be in touch again soon.

  3. Jackie - 1st April 2021 at 4:33 pm

    I always like to see the evolution in certain words and phrases and what they used to mean. Shakespeare is great for throwing up a weird and wonderful one liner.

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