Writers of historical fiction occasionally find themselves at the mercy of an evolving language. Many words which once had common, non-controversial meanings, have changed over the years and now carry linguistic baggage our ancestors would have never imagined. Two words in particular fall into this category, though there are doubtless many more. I’m referring to “gay” and “chubby.”
I was quite well aware that the first of these had a decided shift in meaning. The “Gay 90s” had nothing to do with homosexuality nor did the phrase, “We had a gay old time.” Sadly, those older meanings will likely die off from disuse.
The revamped meaning of “chubby,” on the other hand, caught me completely by surprise. My son was kind enough to shed some light on the word’s contemporary role in verbal exchanges. Nowadays, it refers to an erection. Oh well.
What I find far more interesting are words which sound nasty, but aren’t. Though they’re unlikely to pop up in contemporary dialog, they weren’t all that rare a hundred or more years ago. Consider this gem: Clatterfart. You’ll have to go back a few hundred years to find the original definition of it. The word refers to a gossip or someone who simply can’t keep their mouth shut. Oh, how I’m itching to dish that one out at a dinner party!
One should take great care not to fall victim to a gallgroper. In more common, non-Tudor parlance, a gallgroper is a swindler.
If you’re off on a hike, you may want to fetch your knobstick before you depart. In the 19th century, the word was also used to refer to someone who takes the job of a laborer on strike.
Here’s one I’ve suffered from for as long as I can remember: peniaphobia. Now stop looking at me like that! It means a fear of poverty. Sheesh.
Then there’s the ever charming sack-butt, which comes with two meanings depending on whether it’s spelled with one T or two. The latter refers to a wine barrel, while the former is the name of a musical instrument similar to a modern-day trombone.
The 17th century Scots have passed along an interesting member of this verbal caste: it’s tit-bore, or laid out in full, tit-bore-tat-bore, which is merely another name for peekaboo. In the same vein, hide-and-go-seek was once called hitty-titty. Charming, no? Perhaps this linguistic evolution isn’t such a bad thing after all.
I’ll leave you with a trio of polysyllabic monsters frequently heard in the 19th century. We’ll start with the common gallinipper. Give up? It’s a mosquito. If one finds himself needing to leave town with great haste, one might say he absquatulated. And finally, since my imagination has nearly reached this condition, we have exfluncticate which means to destroy completely.
I had hoped to end this with a witty compilation of several of these gems, but sadly, I’m just not up to the challenge. I have high hopes, however, that some of you may come up with something along those lines. Please feel free to leave them in the comments section. I promise not to be grum, let alone level a sockdolager your way. <smile>