Thursday, 12 March 2009

Again the Cham

I see that OMF contains five posts which refer to the great Dr Johnson, but none have appeared in the past three years, so some extracts from his Dictionary are long overdue.

For all its faults—absurd etymologies ("May not spider be spy dor, the insect that watches the house?"), inaccurate definitions ("pastern, "the knee of a horse", confessions of ignorance ("stammel, Of this word I know not the meaning")—A Dictionary of the English Language, or one of its countless abridgements, revisions and adaptations, was the dictionary that English readers turned to between 1755, when it was written, and 1928, when the OED, its great successor, appeared.

A selection from it by Jack Lynch is a thundering good read; a single page taken at random illustrates perfectly the charm and quirkiness of some of the entries in the Dictionary, especially those which are now obsolete or have dramatically changed their meanings:

cabaret n.s. [French] A tavern
to cabbage v.a. [a cant word among taylors] To steal in cutting clothes
cachexy n.s. A general word to express a great variety of symptoms; most commonly it denotes such a distemperature of the humours, as hinders nutrition, and weakens the vital and animal functions, proceeding from weakness of the fibres, and abuse of the non-naturals, and often from acute distempers.
cackerel n.s. A fish, said to make those who eat it laxative.
cadger n.s. A huckster; one who brings butter, eggs, and poultry, from the country to market.
caisson n.s. [French] A chest of bombs or powder, laid in the enemy's way, to be fired at their approach.

And then there are others which are so fascinatingly specialised that one wonders how much they could have been used, and why it was ever necessary for them to be coined, or adopted into English:
camisado n.s. [Ital] An attack made by soldiers in the dark; on which occasion they put their shirts outward, to be seen by each other.
caudebeck n.s. A sort of light hats, so called from a town in France where they were first made
cerulifick adj Having the power to produce a blue colour.

And if you glance through at random you might learn about anatiferous (producing ducks), parbreak (vomit), circumferoneous (wandering from house to house) and to snudge: (to be idle).

That's enough from dear old Sam for the moment; I feel a touch of cachexy coming on. Clearly, someone has been abusing my non-naturals, so I must stop snudging and be off to the cabaret in my caudebeck; perhaps a snack of fried cackerel will put me right.

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