Words that last (HLD 300)

17 Jan 2021

Sitting watching the cricket this afternoon, I happened to mutter at a decision by the Australian team to challenge an umpires decision, as “clutching at straws”.

I was right, it was a silly challenge, and means they’ve lost that challenge. But it got me wondering where the ‘clutch at straws’ phrase came from.

The phrase comes originally from Thomas More in his work Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1534), and refers to a drowning man grasping for anything, even a straw, to save his life.

I haven’t read much/anything by Thomas More, by that one has hung around and become a common phrase nearly 500 years later!

Shakespeare was prolific in adding to our language, reportedly 1700 words, in fact – words like admirable, auspicious, overblown and sanctimonious, according to one website I perused. And phrases such as ‘break the ice’, ‘all that glitters isn’t gold’ ‘too much of a good thing’ and even ‘it’s Greek to me’.

But I guess that’s where the majority of our language comes from – someone makes up a word or phrase, other people repeat it, they tell two friends and they tell two friends, and before you know it 500 years later some woman is writing about you.

We’ve seen new words or phrases added to the dictionary each year, and likewise there are words that get dropped from familiar speech and become obsolete, even getting dropped from dictionaries! (If only the Australian cricket team had been around to challenge those decisions 😃)

Words that have been identified as obsolete include aerodrome, charabanc, brabble, younker and frigorific. The spell check on my phone didn’t like most of them!

Of course, even prolific writers like Shakespeare can have lovely words that don’t take off. Small-talk pleasantries were referred to as ‘congreeted’, an un-momentous occasion was termed ‘immoment’, and ‘infamonize’ was used to describe making someone go from famous to not famous. But my favourite was ‘bubukles’ – blotches on the face, most likely adult acne.

I’m not sure if anything I’ve written will be in common usage in 500 years time, but let’s have a go at making up some words between us.

I’ll start:

Challengefail – when a cricket team challenges an obviously legitimate decision, thereby wasting the challenge; and

Litorea – literary diarrhoea

Have you got any words I can start using?

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