Words that are becoming extinct

Like many of us, I am a big fan of and user of words.  One of my most popular blog posts is 102 great words that aren’t in English but should be102 great words that aren’t in English but should be.

I’m also a fan of etymology, the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history and one of my books is about the origins of idioms.


Edward Allhusen must have a similar interest as he has catalogued a book full of words that are falling out of favour and have supposedly endangered and have or very soon will be out of every day usage.

A hangover was once known as a bout of ‘crapulence’ while an irresistible craving for alcohol was referred to as ‘dipsomania’.

A ‘caterwaul’ was a burst of inconsiderate high-pitched screaming, to ‘condiddle’ was to steal and an ‘amanuensis’ was a literary assistant who took dictation.

An awkward youth experiencing a difficult transition from childhood to adulthood was a ‘hobbledehoy’.

A gullible person used to be called a ‘juggins’ whilst someone who attached undeserved importance to a matter was ‘pettifogging’.

A bossy woman was a ‘harridan’ and one prone to flirtation was a ‘fizgig’.

I was a little surprised to see many of the words are actually ones that I use either frequently or has my default word for a given situation.  For example a large nose would be a ‘conk’, to depart quickly was ‘to vamoose’.

A grovelling servant was a ‘lickspittle’ and I’m surprised that this has fallen my the wayside as I use it all the time, if not about actual servants.

Acts of stupidity saw individuals labelled as being an ‘ignoramus’ and ‘nincompoop’.  I had no idea that these were out of fashion.  And if there is a more contemporary words for  ‘higgledy-piggledy’ then I want to know, not that I would adopt its usage.  Perhaps not many things are higgledy-piggledy anymore and are all logical and ordered.  If so, how sad!

The book goes on to describe indecisive people as to ‘shilly-shally’, while a loud exclamation of surprise was termed a ‘gadzook’.   I just used Shilly-Shally this week relating to our Prime Minister and her Brexit tactics.

A working class woman with promiscuous habits was commonly referred to as a ‘trollop’, while causing an uproar was creating a ‘rumpus’.  Again, there is a lady who often walks past my house who I call (inside my own 4 walls of course) as being a trollop and a rumpus is so much more fun to use than most alternatives.

As well as listing endangered words, Mr Allhusen has also highlighted how the meaning of words has evolved over the past two and a half centuries.

He studied the seminal 1755 book by Samuel Johnson, ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ to see which words have survived to this day and how their meanings have changed.

In that edition, he was intrigued to find the term ‘betrump’, which was defined as to deceive, to cheat or to evade by guile.  I’m sure it is nothing personal against the President.

The meaning of other words have changed completely – now associated with cricket, the word ‘innings’ once meant land reclaimed from the sea.

Defenestrate – early 17th century; the act of throwing someone out of the window

Vamoose – mid 19th century, from Spanish ‘vamos’; to depart in a quick manner

Crapulence – from the Latin word crapula meaning ‘intoxication’; an old-fashioned term for a hangover

Lickspittle – dating from 1741; a grovelling servant

Dipsomania – mid 19th century, from the Greek word dipso, meaning ‘thirst’ – an irresistible craving for an alcoholic drink

Conk – unknown origin, but usage started around the First World War; a large nose

Hobbledehoy – mid 16th century, of unknown origin; an awkward youth experiencing a difficult transition from childhood to adulthood

Juggins – late 19th century, perhaps from the surname Juggins; a gullible person

Harridan – late 17th century, perhaps from the French word haridelle, or ‘old horse’; an old-fashioned term for a particularly bossy woman

Ignoramus – late 16th century, from Latin, literally ‘we do not know’; meaning a stupid person

Fizgig – early 16th century, probably from ‘fizz’ and ‘gig’, an old word meaning ‘flighty girl’; a person who is extremely flirtatious

Shilly-shally – mid 18th century, re-purposing of ‘shall I?’; an indecisive person

Gadzook – late 17th century: alteration of ‘God’s hooks’; a loud exclamation of surprise

Rumpus – mid 18th century; to create an uproar

Trollop – early 17th century: perhaps related to ‘trull’, which is German for prostitute; a working class woman with promiscuous habits

Pettifogging – late 16th century, someone who attached undeserved importance to a matter

Betrump – unknown origin; means to deceive, to cheat or to evade by guile

Nincompoop – late 17th century, similar to the French word nicodème, meaning simpleton; a foolish or stupid person

Incidentally, I just came across an interesting bit of about a word this morning. Apparently ‘cob’ in cobweb is a very old, and now forgotten English word for spider. The Old English word for spider was atorcoppe, with ator meaning ‘poison’ and coppemeaning ‘head’ – that’s the same ‘coppe’ probably gave us the word corncob (‘head of corn’). In Middle English the word spider (originally spydyr ‘the spinner’) became the more popular word, but cobweb was still retained to refer to the home it makes.  Now that ‘cob’ has no clear meaning, it’s no surprise that over the last couple of hundred years people have started to use spiderweb. The web used to be a more generic word for netting – if you know anyone with the name Webster their name used to denote people who worked as weavers.

Given that I still use old worlds like shilly-shally, trollop, higgledy-piggedly and nincompoop, it will probably come as no surprise that I only ever use the word ‘cobweb’ rather than spiderweb but I must admit, I did not know the precise reason… or if I did then I had forgotten it!

Betrumped, The Surprising History of 3,000 Long Lost, Exotic and Endangered Words, by Edward Allhusen, is published by Amberley and costs £14.99.


About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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5 Responses to Words that are becoming extinct

  1. brewinsgirl says:

    What an enjoyable start to my writing day! Now, can you enlighten me about the origin of the expression “the fortunes of war” – so far the earliest use I can find is Seneca, the Roman philosopher, who said “the fortunes of war are always doubtful”. Any advance on that? Was that the source of all subsequent , and frequent, uses of the phrase?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sed30 says:

    Reblogged this on sed30.com and commented:
    Surprising the amount of words we have lost but then new ones come along!

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Pingback: A Gruntled look at Orphan Negatives. | Stephen Liddell

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