Monday, May 11, 2009

Fun with English

I just finished reading The Word Museum by Jeffrey Kacirk, a little dictionary of archaic English words and expressions. I was struck by the many words--at least one per page--related to beer or ale: either particular types of ale, or cups for drinking it, or particular times when it is drunk (all day, essentially) and the condition people are in after much of it has been drunk. Second to ale/beer words were words related to sexual misconduct of some type, mainly adultery and fornication. I am all for resurrecting disused words. When I was in my early teens, the word "wench" came into fashion among the youth of my acquaintance. We used it often and I felt the old-fashioned word gave our speech a particular flair. Here are a few of my favorites from The Word Museum.

Barley-child "A child born in wedlock but which makes its advent within six months of marriage." [My own Mad Scientist is a "barley-child" and so are a sprinkling of my nieces and nephews. To me, it evokes attractive, tawny colored children.]

Cover-slut "A long apron used to hide an untidy dress; any clothing slipped on to hide untidiness beneath." [Can I get one at anthropologie?]

Chafe litter "Chafe litter is he that wyll plucke up the fether-bed or matrice, and pysse in the bedstraw, and wyl never ryse uncalled. This knave berayeth many tymes in the corners of his maister's chamber, or other places inconvenient, and maketh cleane hys shooes with the coverlet or curtaines." [This is what Miss Manners would call an inconsiderate houseguest.]

Drowning the miller "Adding too much water to wine or spirits; from the term when too much water has been put into a bowl of flower."

egg-wife-trott "An easy jog, such a speed as farmer's wives carry their eggs to the market. SEE midwife gallop." [I will be doing the egg-wife-trott on the day that Anthropologie opens here in C'ville.]

froonce "to go about in an active bustling manner." [The nursing students froonced whenever they were in sight of their clinical instructor.]

giggle trot " a woman who marries when she is far advanced in life is said to take the giggle trot." [Hilarious.]

gospel gossip "one who is over-zealous in running among his neighbors to lecture on religious subjects."

kiddliwink "a small shop where they retail the commodities of a village store."

kissingcrust "Crust formed where one loaf in the oven touches another."

liplabour " Action of the lips without concurrence of the mind. Words without sentiment."

married all over "said of women who, after their marriages, fall off in their appearance and become poor and miserable looking."

mollynogging "Frequenting the company of immoral women."

nose-bag "A visitor to a house of refreshment who brings his own victuals and calls for a glass of water or lemonade."

Pornocracy "The rule of prostitutes; dominating influence of courtezans. [From] The Pornocracy, a party which controlled the government of Rome and elections to the papacy throughout the first part of the tenth century." [Another fine chapter in the history of the Catholic Church. To me, pornocracy sounds like a word that was coined yesterday, not 1,000 years ago. I'm thinking the Clinton administration.]

potvaliant "Heated with courage from strong drink."

prinkle "The flesh is said to prinkle when there is a tingling sensation, consequent upon a temporary suspension of the circulation."

quafftide "time of drinking." [An excellent word. I plan to incorporate it into my daily vocabulary forthwith!]

ribroast "To beat soundly."

runcy "A woman of coarse manners and doubtful character." [The runcy wiped her nose on the hem of her cover-slut.]

shivviness "The feeling of roughness caused by a new undergarment."

snoutfair "A person with a handsome countenance. SEE bellibone, cowfyne, pigsnye. [I can see why this word fell out of fashion: That snoutfair lass looks a lusty wench!]

snow-bones "The patches of snow seen stretching along ridges, in ruts, or in furrows, after a thaw." [In Buffalo, one can see snow-bones as late as June.]

sooterkin "A kind of false birth fabled to be produced by the Dutch women from sitting over their stoves." [dumbfounded. I can't imagine what this could be.]

stale-drunk "A man is said to be stale-drunk when he has been drunk overnight, and has doctored himself with stimulants a little too much in the morning--when he has tried too many of the 'hairs of the dog that bit him'" [We call this still drunk nowadays.]

white serjeant "A man fetched from the tavern or ale house by his wife is said to be arrested by the white serjeant." [Jon has been arrested by the white serjeant a few times.]

yule hole "The last hole to which a man could stretch his belt at a Christmas feast." [Brilliant.]


  1. Very interesting. Looks like a fun read.

    We used wench as well. When someone was particularly awful we would say "wench with a capital B", which quickly became shortened to bench. I still find occasion to use bench.

  2. "Cover-slut" is going into my everyday vocabulary post haste.

  3. I love cover-sluts -- particularly the kind Anthropoligie carries, but I think prinkle is the word that henceforth will be part of my lexicon.

  4. These are great! Mollynogging is my new favorite.

  5. Very interesting. Like you, I plan to incorporate quafftide into my common usage. I found chafe litter to be amusing, especially after I googled the definition of "beray" (are any of us adequately thankful for modern plumbing?).

  6. I want a cover-slut too! I think a sooterkin was a way of covering up an abortion, spontaneous or otherwise, by implying that the woman gave birth to a tiny mouse-like creature. This phenom. was said to be caused by Dutch women keeping little stoves under their voluminous skirts when they were sitting, to keep themselves warm.

  7. Thanks for that explanation Molly.