The Reader

Spring 2006  Page 12

Forgotten Words 

Do you ever find yourself searching for just the right word?  Our language is filled with robust and picturesque words to fit any occasion -- unfortunately, we've forgotten many of them over the years.  Linguist and historian Jeffrey Kacirk has gathered a collection of such words and their history.  We'd like to arm you with a few words from his collection to add to your word-hoard:

Gardyloo Scuttled-butt
Flitterwochen Bowgett
Isabelline Scaramouch

Gardyloo:  Spirited warning cry that once preceded the emptying of slops, bucketsful of wastewater, from an upstairs window into the street below.  A corruption of the French expression gard de l'eau which meant roughly "look out for the water," this expression was frequently heard in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England and Scotland, where a water closet is still referred to as a loo.

Flitterwochen: Old English equivalent of today's honeymoon, roughly meaning "fleeting weeks."  In Chaucer's time, flitte meant "to flee or pass away"--as the initial passion of love often does.  First used around 1500 honeymoon referred to the waxing and waning of the moon, but not, at least originally, to a period of one month.  Because honey was once considered an aphrodisiac, it was consumed in the form of honey-wine.  In A.D. 453, Atilla the Hun reportedly died of drinking too much of this liquor during his flitterwochen.

Isabelline: Adjective used until the second half of the nineteenth century to indicate a grayish-yellow or parchment color.  It is found in an inventory of Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe, which included "one rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten."  The most likely explanation of the word's origin involves a story that Archduchess Isabella of Austria in the late 1500s solemnly vowed not to change her small clothes (underwear) until Ostend, a city to which her father, Philip II, was laying siege, was taken.  To her dismay and that of her friends, the battle continued for another three years.

Scuttled-butt: This nautical equivalent of the office water cooler was the hub of informal conversation aboard English ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  At that time, a butt adopted from a fifteenth-century French botte, was a hogshead or barrel of 104- to 140-gallon capacity.  A square hole large enough to allow water to be scooped out in a cup was cut or "scuttled" into the upper part of this reservoir.  The direct linguistic descendant of the scuttled-butt, scuttlebutt, has since become synonymous with gossip on land and sea.

Bowgett: This Middle English word was borrowed from Old French bouge "small leather bag," derived from Latin bulga.  By the seventeenth century, the spelling had become budget, as it has remained until the present.  By 1700, the meaning of the word had come to include the contents of the pouch, or wallet, a development that allowed it to take on the financial connotation of "projected English treasury expenses."  By the mid 1800s, the meaning had broadened to include the money available for use by an individual -- its common meaning today.

Scaramouch: From the seventeenth century, this term has indicated a lazy, swaggering coward.  Based on a character from the early Italian comedy who was often pummeled for his knavish actions, the word as a verb meant to act in such a manner.  The meaning of what later became skirmish was soon broadened to include encounters between groups of soldiers.  Shakespeare used the expression "skirmish of wit" in 1599 to indicate verbal confrontation.  The nineteenth-century rugby term scrummage and the related American football term scrimmage are other modern adaptations.     

For more "antique" words, contact Lorilie Roundtree (558-2678).  

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