The third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English debuted last week, granting something approaching critical legitimacy to some 2,000 newly-added words and phrases. Focusing as it does on current English usage (unlike the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which traces wordiness along a historical axis), this Oxford embraces and explains words of recent provenance like freemium, sheeple, and, a personal favourite, chillax.
I love words. I get a giddy thrill out of discovering freshly-minted and newly-disseminated coinages, and I happily await those competing “word of the year” announcements from organizations like the American Dialect Society, The Global Language Monitor, and the New Oxford American Dictionary. At the very same time, however, I find myself growing ever more appreciative of words that I come across while reading Victorian literature, words that feel a bit mossy or stodgy upon first encounter, words that never made it out of the nineteenth century.
Take sciolist, as an example. According to the OED, a sciolist is “a superficial pretender to knowledge.” (Aren’t we all?) It’s a word that shows up in the high-minded argumentative writing of Newman and Huxley, but is also used to pointed, poignant effect in Matthew Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”:
“My melancholy, sciolists say,
Is a passed mode, an outworn theme –
As if the world had ever had
A faith, or sciolists been sad!”
It’s a wonderful word – its meaning is clear, it rolls off the tongue with a sibilant snap, and it hasn’t really been replaced by anything quite as precise.
Or how about fuliginous, which I found in a footnoted quotation from John Timbs’ Curiosities of London (1855) in my Norton edition of Bleak House. Here is Timbs’ take on fog:
“This phenomenon is caused by the half million of blazing coal-fires in the metropolis contributing a vast quantity of fuliginous matter, which, mingling with the vapour, partly arising from imperfect drainage, produces that foggy darkness…Sometimes it is of a bottle-green colour, but…at other times it is of a pea-soup yellow…”
Fuliginous is adapted from the Latin word for soot, and means (according to the OED, which almost never lies) “pertaining to, consisting of, containing, or resembling soot; sooty.” Don’t get me wrong – soot is solid and effective in its direct, Old English way. But fuliginous! Fuliginous carries with it an undeniable layer of noxious, miasmatic oppressiveness, especially compared to the relative simplicity of soot. As does twenty-first-century smog, I might add.
And finally, I offer a gem of a word I came across while reading Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” As Holmes brings Watson up to speed on the details of his current case, the great detective recounts the events of another character’s evening as follows:
“About four o’clock on Christmas morning, Peterson, who, as you know, is a very honest fellow, was returning from some small jollification…”
He was returning from some what now? Jollification? Just reading the word makes my day a little brighter. I turn once more to the OED for some clues as to whence this word came, and I’m met with the following definition: “The action of jollifying…”
“…or making merry; merrymaking, jollity.”
Jollifying? JOLLITY? Is there any way to see that some of our “new” additions to the lexicon might actually be old words, dusted off and spit-polished until they shine once more? Catherine Soanes, Oxford‘s head of online dictionaries, offers me some hope by way of this interview with NPR. Soanes describes the enormous database used by the good folks at the ODE to track the ebb and flow of various words amongst linguistic communities. A word used by a single person in a single blog post remains an inert piece of data in that database. A word that gains traction with many writers, however, becomes a contender for inclusion in future editions of the dictionary. And so, a challenge is born. Surely there exists some Victorian morpheme ready for resurrection, some hard-working little ghost of a syllable that might still have some semantic kick to it? I’ll report back here with possibilities!