About The Author
David Crystal is Britain's foremost expert in the English language and currently an honorary professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor.
He has written and edited over 120 books on language, including The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, The Stories of English, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, Think on My Words: An Introduction to Shakespeare's Language and Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, as well as an autobiography, Just a Phrase I'm Going Through: My Life in Language.
As a researcher in the 1960s, he was involved in the Study of English Usage based at University College London that sought to chronicle the history and evolution of the English language worldwide. He was awarded an OBE in 1995 and was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 2000.
Crystal's latest book, The Disappearing Dictionary, is a treasury of lost English dialect words that either provide an insight into an older way of life, or simply have an irresistible phonetic appeal. Like a mirror image of The Meaning of Liff that just happens to be true, The Disappearing Dictionary unearths some lovely old gems of the English language, dusts them down and makes them live again for a new generation.
Below, David introduces The Disappearing Dictionary and explains why he's in a state of confloption.
Further down the page, you can find two extracts from his recent The Story of English in 100 Words, a unique history of the English language, illustrated by Crystal's choice of 100 words of diverse origins and usage, exploring their etymology, changing use and how they reflect the eras that introduced them. The first chapter is on money, which arrived from France in the 14th century, and the second is about app, which first appeared in print in 1985.
The Author At Foyles
They're all capadocious.
One of the questions I often get asked after giving a talk on the English language is 'what's my favourite word'. I always give a disappointing reply. 'I don't have one', I say. Or rather: 'they're all my favourites'. I'm not kidding. Every word has its individual fascinating history. The one I happen to be exploring today, for whatever reason, is temporarily my favourite.
When I start giving talks about The Disappearing Dictionary, I know it's going to happen again. What's my favourite lost dialect word? I can't do it. I am confused - or should I say beraffled, betwattled, bogfoundered, cabobbled, cumpuffled, discomfrontled. I am in a state of confloption. They're all splendid.
You can see from these few examples that it wasn't at all easy choosing 500 words to represent the many thousands collected by Joseph Wright in his amazing English Dialect Dictionary over a century ago - the dictionary that has been forgotten by all but a few specialists, and that I'm celebrating in my little book. In the end I went for words that expressed everyday notions, that had an appealing phonetic ring, and whose origins I could explain - or at least hazard a good guess about.
Wright was recording words that were known in various parts of Britain during the 19th century. And for every word I homed in on, I had two thoughts. Could it be that it's not lost at all, but is still known in some part of the country? And then, if it really has been lost , might people see its value and start using it again? Because very often the old word expresses a meaning that no modern word expresses so well.
People often say such things as 'I wish there was a word for...' - and coin a new word to capture the meaning or nuance they have in mind. Old dialect words can sometimes save them the bother. Do you have a feeling that is a mixture of pricking and tingling? Try prinkling, recorded in Northumberland and Scotland. Or to trample lightly? Try pample, from East Anglia. And what about granch (a blend of grind + crunch), flimp (flabby + limp), and solemncholy (solemn + melancholy)? They're all capadocious (as they used to say in Devon).
A productive idiom (14th century)
Vocabulary isn't just a matter of single words. It includes thousands of idioms - strings of words which have taken on a special meaning. We talk about doing something at the drop of a hat ('immediately'), getting cold feet ('becoming afraid') and having a heart of gold ('a generous nature'). Some words are very frequently used in idioms. Money is one of them - a popular idiomatic source since the word arrived from French in the 14th century.
You can give someone a run for their money, see the colour of their money, get your money's worth, have money to burn and spend money like water. Maybe you won't do something for love nor money, perhaps because you're not made of money. Or maybe you will, because it's money for old rope, money for jam. If you've got some, then money is no object and it might burn a hole in your pocket. You can put your money where your mouth is. Money talks, after all. And if you're feeling proverbial, you can observe that money is the root of all evil, doesn't grow on trees and makes the world go round. Even nonstandard grammar can survive in standard English as an idiom. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
It's not just the general word that attracts idioms. The individual coins and banknotes do too, reflecting the currency of the culture. So in American English people feel like a million dollars, make a fast buck, bet their bottom dollar and put their two cents worth into a conversation. Some, such as pass the buck, have become part of colloquial standard English everywhere. In other cases, the idiom is translated: in British English, we're more likely to see feel like a million quid and put in their two pence worth.
If there's a change in the currency system, or in the value of money, it quickly affects the language. Penny and pence have been really popular over the centuries, but many of these idiomatic expressions reflect an age when things cost a penny. In old publications we'll find such expressions as penny dreadful, penny bun, penny bank, penny arcade, penny whistle and penny novelette. Some live on. Many people still say that cheap things are ten a penny, observe that something expensive is a pretty penny and offer others a penny for your thoughts. And, even in an age of new technology, people still say the penny dropped, from the 1930s, when people put a penny in a slot machine. Older people still use the euphemism about going to spend a penny, though the days when a public lavatory had a penny slot are long gone. Today it costs at least 20p, and more in some places. Maybe one day British English will get a new idiom: I have to spend a pound.
A killer abb (20th century)
In 1985 a writer in the trade newspaper Information World, describing a new kind of on-screen menu, used an abbreviation - and then felt he had better explain it: 'apps', he wrote, adding 'for applications'.
Most people would have needed an explanation at the time. The idea of an application - a computer function designed to meet a specific user requirement - had been around for over twenty years, but shortening it to app was a novelty. The word had never been abbreviated in that way before. It immediately caught on. There was something phonetically appealing about the short, perky syllable, which seemed to suit the exciting quickfire developments in digital communication of the time. And soon after, the idea of a killer app arrived - a function which, in the dreams of the multimedia industry, would be so appealing or superior that people wouldn't be able to do without it. If any word should achieve the status of a killer abb(reviation), it is this one.
There's nothing new about abbreviations, of course. They've been in English since its earliest days. But the Anglo-Saxon scribes could hardly have predicted the extraordinary increase in shortened words and names that has taken place over the past century or so. One collection has over half a million abbreviations, with new editions adding thousands more each year. And no wordbook should ignore the way that electronic media generally, and the internet in particular, have become one of the most fruitful sources of present-day growth, especially in abbreviations consisting only of initial letters (acronyms) - GPS ('global positioning system'), SMS ('short messaging service'), FAQs ('frequently asked questions') and so on. Most are short - three letters is the norm. Just occasionally we encounter longer sequences, such as WYSIWYG ('what you see is what you get'), or some of the humorous strings found in text-messaging, such as ROTFLMAO ('rolling on the floor laughing my ass off').
How many of these will last? Many, especially those used in texting, are likely to have a short life. But app seems a safe bet for a permanent place in the language. The number of apps are now in the hundreds of thousands, and mobile phones are increasingly the technology of choice for internet connection, so this is plainly an abbreviation that is not going to go away. Who would use four syllables (applications) in everyday speech when they can use one?
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Samuel Johnson; David Crystal
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