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.
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.
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.
“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.