Tag Archives: English language

Celebrating ye olde English of ye olde times

During one of my many trips to Durban and back, I picked up a delightful book on sale at a bookstore in the King Shaka International Airport.  Although I paid small change for this book titled “Lost English Words and Phrases That Have Vanished from our Language” by Chris Roberts, this little publication has given me hours of entertainment and is worth its weight in gold.

As is the case with most languages, the addition of words and phrases is dependent on prevailing circumstances and the influx of other cultures, amongst other factors. For example, the two World Wars saw a melting pot of nations and cultures influencing the English language as it was known then.  Chris Roberts describes English as possessing the largest vocabulary of any language in the world, an attribute he says is because of the language’s “magpie-like tendency to adopt words from pretty much anywhere as well as having been shaped by successive waves of invaders, bringing with them Danish, Anglo-Saxon and French words”.

This is the true beauty of the English language:  its adaptability.  As words are added, so other words become obsolete.  After paging tirelessly through his book, I’ve picked out a fifteen of my favourite words that are now sadly out of commission.


A term used for a young man, often a newly commissioned officer, who habitually socialised with women. The word “poodle” was 19th century slang for a woman, and “faker” in this context refers to the pretence of emotions.  “Poodlefaker” is a great old word for what we would call a “player” today.

Knickerbockers (knee breeches):

A sort of loose-fitting trouser gathered in at the knee or sometimes the calf. Today the more stylish versions are called cropped pants or Capri’s.

Pully hawly:

The word has a “pull and haul” context.  Here, the phrase “pully hawly”, originating in the 18th century, meant a sexual encounter.  So a “pully hawly” is a bit like a “slap and tickle”, a “roll in the hay” or a “romp”.


A word similar to “thingamabob” or “doohickey” used by a person to describe an object or item he/she has temporarily or permanently forgotten.


Another descriptive word denotes disorderly or reckless haste.  Chaotic, helter-skelter, higgledy-piggledy or jumbled would be good alternatives.

Rubber Johnny:

Simply put, an old English term for a condom


An archaic term for a sexually promiscuous woman.


“Rum” was often used as a prefix, either to symbolise admiration or warning, for example, “rum cove” (a dextrous and clever rogue) or “rum doxy” (a beautiful woman).


An old term for doctor, or more accurately a surgeon.


An attack of the “vapours” would describe a number of mental or emotional conditions such as depression, hysteria, mood swings, fainting etc.


A small posy of flowers either carried by a bridesmaid or matron of honour at a wedding, or pinned to her dress by means of a small decorative vase. “Tussie-mussie” seems to stem from the medieval word “tussemose” or “tussock”, which is pre-dated by the Victorian era when a bunch of aromatic herbs were carried to disguise unpleasant body odours due to the poor personal hygiene in those days.


A “cove” was generally a conventional, home-loving sort of person. The word may have been derived from the Romany word “kova” simply meaning a person or thing.

Egg on your chin:

A polite way of telling a man that his zip or buttons were undone.


“Gasper” is a dated slang word for a cigarette.  We call it a “smoke” these days.

Galloping consumption:

“Consumption” was once the most commonly used term for tuberculosis (TB) and therefore “galloping” was the vivid way to describe how the disease consumed and wasted its victims.


The debate of UK English vs American English

I am fascinated with the English language It’s a passion I learned, late in life, not everyone shares. People enjoy different things for sure! Me? I thrive on researching grammar, spelling and language issues in general.  

 There is one language related topic in particular that truly blows my hair back:  the variances between the use of American English, British English and South African English.

For the record, I do not confess to be an expert on the topic! I am merely an English language buff who has spent a substantial amount of personal time clarifying, in my own mind at least, the correct use of English in writing.

My vocation requires that I edit and write, and being a proud South African, I am continuously irritated at the inconsistencies in magazine and newspaper editorial, amongst others, in relation to the use of American and British English standards.  Often – and to my utter dismay – any particular editorial can contain both language styles:  the American English standard and the British or UK English standard – all in one writing sample!

faceWhat really gets my goat is the spelling of words with “s” or “z” (e.g. organisation or organization) and conflicting sentence punctuation, especially when using quotation marks e.g.:

  • “It’s a beautiful and sunny day”, Lisa said. She emphasised, “I wonder when it will rain?”.
  • ‘It’s a beautiful and sunny day,” Lisa said. She emphasized, ‘I wonder when it will rain?’

You see, my peers and I were educated to use the “s” and not the “z” – although both are correct in British English, while American English prefers using the “z” only.  Yet the “z” creeps persistently into our writing!  So which version is correct?

In my humble opinion, South Africans should stick with the following simple language guidelines:

  • Using British/UK English spelling e.g. programme, cheque, kilogramme, metre, dialogue, neighbour, honour, archaeology etc.
  • Using the “s” and not the “z” in spelling e.g. organise, analyse, capitalise, emphasise, standardise, urbanise etc.
  • Using double quotation marks for direct speech and single quotation marks for a quote within a quote.
  • Placing the comma or period outside the quotation marks unless the comma or period forms part of the quoted material, in which case the punctuation mark is placed inside the quotation marks.
  • In body text which already contains direct speech using double quotation marks, single quotation marks should be used to highlight or emphasise specific words or to enclose slang and jargon.
  • Use of hyphens to separate identical letters as in co-operate and re-introduce.
  • Hyphenating compound modifiers, if used in adjectives before the noun e.g. full-time job, well-known expert, large-scale project. However, if used after the noun, a hyphen is not used e.g. the job is full time, the expert is well known, the project was large scale. Also, modifiers ending in “ly” do not require hyphenation (thanks to www.copyblogger.com for this easy to remember tip)  
  • Hyphenating compound numbers and fractions.

So there you have it! Use it or don’t use it – I’ve put it out there!

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