Curious English vocabulary

2017-12-14

in Language

In English, in short, there are words for almost everything.

Some of these words deserve to be better known. Take velleity, which describes a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action. Doesn’t that seem a useful term? Or how about slubberdegullion, a seventeenth-century word signifying a worthless or slovenly fellow? Or ugsome, a late medieval word meaning loathsome or disgusting? It has lasted half a millennium in English, was a common synonym for horrid until well into the last century, and can still be found tucked away forgotten at the back of most unabridged dictionaries. Isn’t it a shame to let it slip away? Our dictionaries are full of such words—words describing the most specific of conditions, the most improbable of contingencies, the most arcane of distinctions.

And yet there are odd gaps. We have no word for coolness corresponding to warmth. We are strangely lacking in middling terms—words to describe with some precision the middle ground between hard and soft, near and far, big and little. We have a possessive impersonal pronoun its to place alongside his, her, and their, but no equivalent impersonal pronoun to contrast with the personal whose. Thus we have to rely on inelegant constructions such as “The house whose roof” or resort to periphrasis. We have a word to describe all the work you find waiting for you when you return from vacation, backlog, but none to describe all the work you have to do before you go. Why not forelog? And we have a large number of negative words—inept, dishevelled, incorrigible, ruthless, unkempt—for which the positive form is missing. English would be richer if we could say admiringly of a tidy person, “She’s so sheveled,” or praise a capable person for being full of ept or an energetic one for having heaps of ert. Many of these words did once have positive forms. Ruthless was companioned by ruth, meaning compassion. One of Milton’s poems contains the well-known line “Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth.” But as with many such words, one form died and another lived. Why this should be is beyond explanation. Why would we have lost demit (send away) but saved commit? Why should impede have survived while the once equally common and seemingly just as useful expede expired? No one can say.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 67–8

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