by Gabrielle C. Durham
Whether we’re glancing through a play from high school before donating it or wandering through an antique shop, sometimes we see a word that doesn’t look quite right. Sometimes, misspelled words are a result of advertising campaigns, and other times they are alternate spellings in English. We all know English has some demented rules of orthography (even the word “orthography” can inspire chuckles; “proper writing” in English? Is that a joke?). You’re not alone if you have to remind yourself about “i before e except after c” and its numerous exceptions.
I was thinking about words that may or may not have been commonly used in writing or speech at some point, but more typically now receive a raised eyebrow. It very well may be that you are on a one-person campaign to keep “erstwhile” thriving in the vernacular, and good on you, mate. It may be a little lonely, though. “Erstwhile” has meaning as an adverb meaning formerly and as an adjective, it means one-time or previous, as in an erstwhile partner. This coinage goes back to the 16th century, but its two parts originated centuries earlier. Has it had a good run? Should it be up for retirement now? It does seem to maintain a legalistic meaning, so maybe the old boy retains some vital essence.
A related word that makes me smile is “umquhile,” also meaning previous or former, usually when talking about someone who has died. Its roots are Scottish, which has pronunciation conventions that continue to elude me. Chances are, no one has any idea what you are writing about if you use this delightful peacock of a word.
What about “smite”? We tend to think about it in a biblical context, such as when David smote Goliath. Its most common definition is to strike or hit heavily, sometimes to death, going back to the 12th century. In the 18th century, “smite” made a 180-degree turn into positive territory with the usage of “being smitten,” as in taken with or entranced by some extraordinary creature of noteworthy pulchritude (when someone is attractive to the beholder).
What about the physical realm? Just as most of us no longer concern ourselves with sock garters, most are unlikely to have an attack of the vapors or a case of fantods, at least as imagined by a Brontë. What are the vapors? As you may have guessed, they tended to affect women in the form of exhalations of bodily organs that caused nervous conditions marked by depression or hysteria (from the Greek word for uterus, so limited to women, natch). This usage came about in the early 17th century.
“Fantods,” usually plural, although they sound like wee gremlins who spring out at inopportune times, is a state of tense irritability. It arose in the 19th century as a possible portmanteau of “fantastic fatigue.” Do you feel them coming on about 3 pm? That’s when they announced their presence in my incarnation as a cubicle denizen.
What about a haberdasher? When is the last time you heard of someone entering the profession of haberdashery? For me, it was probably when I read a biography of former U.S. president Harry S Truman. He was a not particularly successful haberdasher in Missouri for a number of years before entering politics full time. In the United States, a haberdasher works in a shop that sells men’s clothes. The British sense of the word describes a person who works in a retail establishment that sells needles, pins, or other accoutrements to make clothing.
The word “ballyhoo” sounds older than it is. Its first appearance was in 1901, earning it a place as a tyro in this list. This florid word appropriately enough refers to loud talk with the intention of attracting attention. Its secondary meaning, also a noun, is a flamboyant promotion or noisy commotion. Its origins are unknown, but it seems likely to be onomatopoetic, no?
In the same vein of “ballyhoo” is “gasconade,” which means swaggering boasting, arising in the early 18th century. A person who exercised this style of bravado was called a Gascon, as in the former territory of France, going back some centuries earlier.
We could have looked at some other words we see rarely or in only very limited contexts, such as most legal jargon (“therewith,” I hardly knew ye). May you become smitten with some of these old-timers and extend their lifespan.