Larmy, Mirligo, Betwittered - Resurrecting the Sexy Old Words

Larmy, Mirligo, Betwittered - Resurrecting the Sexy Old Words

In 2014, Pan Macmillan published You Say Potato - a book on English accents by Ben Crystal and David Crystal. It was complemented by an innovative map - the largest potato-base ever, registering accents from and outside the British Isles.

2015 saw the release of another interactive publication by Pan Macmillan, this time a book on English dialects by David Crystal.

The Disappearing Dictionary: A Treasury of Lost English Dialect Words is a celebration of Joseph Wright's monumental English Dialect Dictionary accomplished within thirty years and first published in part in 1898. Crystal's book aims to revitalise the public interest in this fascinating resource for dialect words and raise greater awareness of its paramount importance to English dialectology.

The Disappearing Dictionary is written with the vivacity and expertness of assessment typical of Crystal's work. In 'Exploring dialects' Crystal comments on the intrigue and variety of dialects and the pride with which people always identify with their local parlance. There is a tantalising image of an original page from Wright's dictionary as well as maps of the counties of England, Wales and Scotland as they were in name and boundary in 1900. In the short introductory chapters, Crystal also introduces to the reader the extraordinary story of Joseph Wright:

'... there is no other linguistic story quite as dramatic as the one in which an illiterate quarry-boy and mill-worker becomes a professor of comparative philology at Oxford University.'

Crystal relates the making of Wright's English Dialect Dictionary, the conventions, sources and structure of the work which covers about 117,500 senses of words with the examples of usage deriving from over 3,000 dialect glossaries. Crystal also explains his selection of 500 entries for The Disappearing Dictionary, laid out in an A-Z, preserving Wright's balance of coverage as regards the percentage of each letter represented in the original dictionary. Wright's headword spellings, definitions, illustrations of usage, too, are unchanged but Crystal has updated the etymologies where necessary. The entries are lucid, easy to read and keep in mind. You can read the entries at random as a regular dictionary, but if you are interested in a particular region Crystal provides a geographical index at the end of A-Z.

The fact that Wright was registering dialect words from the late 1800s does not mean of course that these are now obsolete words that present a mere historical interest. Several of the words must still be living dialect words, unchanged or, more often, in new senses, dimensions or spellings. Crystal has selected practical words which have all the (ludic) charm to be resurrected.

fawnicate (verb)

Kent, Sussex

To fondle affectionately. From Kent, a mother to her child when cuddling up to her: 'Bless you, you little fawnicating thing'. The source is fawn, 'showing fondness', as in standard English, but the verb with the -icate ending never became standard - presumably because it would have sounded too much like fornicate in upper-class pronunciation, where the r wasn't pronounced after a vowel. Dialects would have kept the r and avoided any confusion.

Some entries reveal fascinating word-formation practices lost to modern English. My favourite and one I am going to use henceforth is the suffix -th added to form abstract nouns, like chilth, dryth, feelth and even sidth (from 'side').

feelth (noun)

Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Rutland, Warwickshire, Worcestershire

Feeling, sensation. A word, like coolth, that shows how the -th ending for nouns was once much more widely used than it is today. From Leicestershire: 'His feet is mortified, an' hasn't got no feelth in 'em'. Judging by the distribution, it was a useful word across a broad swathe of middle England.

And some are windows back to the future...

skype (noun)


A mean, worthless fellow; a lean person of disagreeable manner and temper. From Selkirkshire: 'If he durst I would claw the puppy hide of him! He is as great a skype as I know of'. The dialect meaning was presumably unknown to the founders of a well-known internet messaging service.

The author and publishers have come up with a brilliant idea of including a form at the end of the book - if you are aware of any modern usages mentioned in the entries you can note down the source details and locations for them. Moreover, Pan Macmillan have launched a dialect map where you can register known current usages in modern English dialects, thus helping to see which and how many of the old words in Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary are still in use today.


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