Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Betrumped: The Surprising History of 3000 Long-Lost, Exotic and Endangered Words by Edward Allhusen

The greatest invention of all time - Words and where they came from

If you stop people in the street and ask them to make their choice of the greatest invention of all time they usually say the wheel. But the choices are endless - penicillin, concrete, telephones, petrol engines, sliced bread. Yet one invention is seldom even shortlisted despite all of us using it every day just as you are doing right now. Surely the greatest invention is language but it is seldom considered as people take it for granted. But it certainly is an invention, for no new born child comes equipped with a vocabulary.  All the words in all of the world’s estimated 6912 languages and countless thousands of dialects were invented by man. Samuel Johnson defined 42,773 words in his famous dictionary published in 1755 but now it is believed that there are in excess of 600,000 words in the English language.

Every single one of them must have been made up by someone, somewhere at some time and for some purpose.

Every word has a pedigree but for many the mists have rolled in and the history has been lost. But thousands have retained their history and that is what makes etymology so fascinating. For practical purposes conventional histories have to limit their scope to periods of time; areas of the world; particular spheres of science, philosophy or whatever the wordsmith chooses. But words have no such restrictions, leaving them free to leap over boundaries on their journey to the same single destination - your vocabulary, whether it be in your memory, your spell checker or your dictionary.  As they journey through time, cultures, regions and other languages they invariably bring with them a little bit of their ancestry.

Thousands of words have been purloined from hundreds of other languages and English has always welcomed these immigrants whenever there seemed to be a linguistic gap that needed filling. Before the fifth century Latin was spoken in much of Britain but when the Romans packed up and departed they left behind thousands of words including Domino, Mantelpiece and Refrigerate. The dispossessed Celts bequeathed Butcher, Glass and Lukewarm. The Angles, whose language forms the basis of English, brought many words that have remained unchanged since they stormed ashore, Bishop, Daisy and Earwig among them. Then there were the Vikings whose Norse language contributed hundreds more including Acre, Awkward and Ski.

In 1066 Norman-French became the language of government and law and, even when English eventually regained the upper hand, many words such as money, jury and tax remained. Knights and pilgrims returning from the Holy Land brought home exotic items and ideas never before seen in the west thus introducing words that originated in China, India and Persia such as Ivory, Oranges, Pyjamas, Satin, Sugar and Shampoo.

Explorers and travellers returning from the new world with a plethora of previously unseen foods, ideas and items retained the native names including Anorak, Avocado, Barbeque, Hooch, Potato and Tobacco.

Thousands of new words had to be coined during the industrial revolution to describe recent inventions and discoveries. Many were derived from Greek and Latin such as Anatomy, Bacteria, Factory, Inoculate, Vaccine and Vitamin while others were made up by scientists with a sense of humour such as pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis which is a disease of the lungs. Many words are made up by joining two others together such as bedridden. Ridden means filled with something unpleasant. So bed is where you go when you are ridden with pneumonoult... etc.

So we, the English, have appropriated words from all over the globe and it is this willingness to accept incomers that gives it strength since its constant ability to adapt has been the cornerstone of its success. Other languages such as French have been more concerned with purity than progress so, while lovers of the English language tend to sneer at Americanisms and bad usage, spare a thought that maybe you are witnessing the type of change that has strengthened it to the point at which it is now an unstoppable global language.

Quite the opposite to Cornish that served an area too small to survive as anyone’s first language but thankfully not before it contributed words such as Bludgeon and Puffin to English.

Mandarin gave us Kowtow and Typhoon. Arabic provided Algebra, Artichoke, Chemistry and Coffee. Spanish produced Alcove, Boot, Castanets and Dagger while Hindi charms us with Bungalow and Chutney. Each of these vies with English for the accolade of being spoken by the most people as their first language. But it is English that is spoken by far more people as a second language and they do this all over the world making it the undisputed language of commerce and government. Over half of everyone living in the EU has English as a first or second language. If only we could charge a royalty as we severe our ties with them!

After they have arrived words do not necessarily remain unchanged until the end of time. They drift in and out of popularity. Many have already been consigned to the literary scrap heap while others are tottering on the edge of oblivion suffering from lack of use.

What better way to see how things have changed than to go back 250 years to take a stroll through the pages of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary? Some gems have disappeared from our perception altogether and really ought to be brought back. Surely in uncertain political times we have a need to use snollygoster which means 'A politician concerned more for his personal advancement than for performing the duties for which he or she was appointed'.  How much better that we revive resting gems than slip into a world where pronouncements, even from the higher echelons of the world stage, are reduced to 280 characters and smiley faces? Where will it end? Samuel Johnson, who knew a thing or two, described trumpery as 'something salacious; something of less value than it seems. Falsehood; empty talk. Something of no value; trifles'.

Edward Allhusen's new book Betrumped: The Surprising History of 3000 Long-Lost, Exotic and Endangered Words is available for purchase now.