The English language is not static. Despite the efforts of purists to freeze the language at a certain time period and say, “This is correct forever,” the language continues to change and grow. We are all aware of new words from the latest technology, and new meanings for old words from our children.
The Salmon Brook Historical Society has a book entitled A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Exposition of the English Language by John Walker, published in Hartford in 1827. Random perusal of any page reveals many changes in our language from that of Americans in the early 19th century.
There were many words with prefixes that we have dropped. Such as: adryfor thirsty, anights for in the nighttime, bepaint, bepinch and berhyme. Some prefixes have changed; unconditional once was inconditional.
The prefix “out” was used more frequently. We have kept outrage, outline and outlaw, but outgive, outgate and outroot are now—out.
On the other hand, we attached an article to several old words; changing skue (oblique, sidelong) into askew and kimbo (crooked, arched) into akimbo. Also, at one time broider meant “to adorn with figures of needlework” and the word erasure originally was just rasure.
Some old words have survived, but with an entirely different meaning. A badgerwas not an animal, but was defined as “one who buys corn in one place and sells it in another,” while paddock described a large frog or toad.
Instead of handling trouble in a pub, a bouncer was a liar and a braggart, and queasy meant fastidious. To stop at a restaurant was called bait, and if you were blowzy, you had a bad case of sunburn.
Other words contain a hint of the present day definition. A wink was once called a twinkle, a cotwas not a small bed but a small house (our cottage), and our word curtsy evolved from courtesy.
A rugin the 1820s covered your bed, not your floor. An eavesdropper was “a mean fellow that skulks around the house at night.” Originally pamper meant “to glut with food,” and our rather mildnaughty was defined as “wicked and corrupt.”
If you went cruising, you were probably a pirate, and luggage meant “anything cumbrous and unwieldy,” a definition overburdened travelers will appreciate.
We have dropped the K from mechanick, skeptick, publick and knab. Phrensy is now frenzy, sissure became fissure (can’t imagine why) and a runagate turned into a renegade.
In some cases, only the opposite of a word has survived. Thus we have innocent and have lost nocent(guilty). We have sobriety but not ebriety (drunkeness), although we do have inebriated.
One very old phrase that is still heard on TV and in the theater is green room, the waiting room for actors off stage.
Some of the old words are so wonderful that we really should bring them back. Anti-smokers will love mundungus (stinking tobacco). Weary parents can tell their noisy offspring to cease theirbrabble and bombulation.
A most appropriate word for an endless New England winter is frigorifick (causing cold). To feel for something in the dark is to grubble. Painters who “daub carelessly” can be accused of slubbering. And a hipbone was once called a hucklebone.
A personal favorite is scissible, meaning “capable of being cut.” How about flapdragon which describes a game where you catch raisins out of burning brandy (directions on how to do this were not in the dictionary).
If someone was a bellygod (glutton) and then had a horrible stomach ache, call it the mulligrubs. The rest of the day would, no doubt, be ghastful.
A young woman of 1820 could go to a frippery to buy some used clothing, have her hair styled at a frizeur and make up her face with fuscus. However, just don’t call her a gigglet, which was most insulting.
Speaking of insults, we have mislaid some very useful and quite descriptive words. A pinguid, pursy person was fat, unctuous and short of breath. You could call a stupid fellow a clodpole, a noddy, a gawk, a chuff or a clumps.
A lazy person was lubberly and a surly one was grum. An overweight woman was a ronion and a romp described a “rude awkward girl.”
If you were really angry at your backfriend (secret enemy), you might call him a crinose, froward gutler suffering from spissitude (a hairy, peevish greedy eater suffering from grossness).
I found several words that really intrigued me. There was huswife, meaning economist. Did huswife become housewife? And sadly, I hope I don’t ruin any Valentine’s Day memories, but romance was once defined as “lies and made up tales.” A surprising word was panado (bread boiled in water); I didn’t realize they had bagels in 1820.
And bellybone? It isn’t in this old dictionary, but it was an old English word, mangled from the French “belle et bon”—beautiful and good.