The Cemetery of Lost Words

Tom Gauld. By permission of the artist.

My favorite line in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan describes Captain Hook: “The man is not wholly evil—he has a thesaurus in his cabin.” I love that. Words are important. They convey meaning and create an intellectual and emotional response. Since we know words can hurt or heal, we should be certain ours are understood.

            Some words are imprecise, flabby, and liable to misinterpretation. Other words nail the intended thought with such clarity and precision that the mind of the hearer or reader is enlightened and enlarged. I admire people—even Captain Hooks—who know interesting and beautiful words and use them with skill and artistry. That’s the job of the writer, after all.

            The English language has no shortage of words. One million is the current estimate, with more added each year. In 2019, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added almost 700 new words, phrases, and definitions, including buzzy (speculative or excited talk or attention); snowflake (someone who is overly sensitive); and unplug (temporarily refrain from using electronic devices).

            My interest isn’t so much in the new words being created as in the old words being lost through neglect—or downgraded in meaning. I agree with those who say, “Don’t use a fancy word when a plain one will do.” The problem is sometimes a plain word just won’t do.

            With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of eight delightful forgotten or endangered words I think we should use more often so as to preserve them for future generations.

1. Eventide: the onset of dusk or twilight; a lovely word to use when all is right with the world, and it’s time to sit on the porch with your sweetie and a glass of wine.

2. After-wise: the feeling of knowing exactly what you should have said or done when the opportunity to say it or do it has passed you by. Yup.

3. Susurration: the whispering, murmuring, or rustling of wind or water; a perfect example of onomatopoeia (another endangered word).

4. Bunbury: to get out of a commitment by inventing an imaginary person you must visit; from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, where Algernon invents a sick friend named Bunbury as an excuse to avoid his relatives. Secondary meaning: to galavant around under a false identity. The first bunburying often leads to the second.

5. Slugabed: a person who stays in bed long after the usual or proper time to get up; helpful when raising teenagers.

6. Énoument: the bittersweetness of having arrived in the future and seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.

7. Ephemeral: lasting for a very short time; fleeting; transitory. A word used primarily by those over fifty.

8. Chimerical: hoped-for but illusory and impossible to achieve; or something that exists only as the product of unchecked imagination, like Big Foot or world peace.

            I read a fascinating article recently on the subject of lost words by Wilfrid M. McKay in The Hedgehog Review (Fall 2019). McKay said, “Like a lover of endangered species, the lover of endangered words jumps for joy when he sees a word being rescued, and is grateful when a writer restores to currency a semantic possibility that had fallen into desuetude. It is as if a lovely antique table has been rediscovered after many years of gathering dust up in the attic, and when brought downstairs and cleaned up and polished, imparts a splendor and unbought grace to the room that no shiny new object could possibly match.”

Do you have some favorite old words? How about a favorite author who makes you get out your dictionary and thesaurus? What words do you hope we save for future generations?

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2 thoughts on “The Cemetery of Lost Words

  1. This hits the nail on the head for my morning….. my husband and I continue to work on a German to English transition of his grandmothers’s account of WWI and the Russian Revolution, and negotiating the right English word is tricky! It is nuanced and at the same time we want to be true to her early 20th century meaning. Right now we are hung up on how to say received a gift (at Christmas) while her word implies more than a commodity, but also the gift of the season in religious terms.

  2. Connie, I love those words and this post. My favorite authors are those who continuously send me to the dictionary. Elizabeth George gets the prize for that. Ever since I bought a Great Deliverance, I know to have a dictionary next to me when I read her books.

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