19th century words not always easy to say
Published 4:07 pm Thursday, October 5, 2023
There is no question that language can be really weird.
It comes with a framework of grammar rules which can be tweaked or tossed out on certain occasions, leaving language learners sometimes scratching their head when trying to string their sentences together.
Languages also change over the years, subject to the whims of the speakers. That’s why people often like to read “modern” translations of Shakespeare plays because a lot of his phrasing and vocabulary has fallen out of fashion since the 1500s. And it’s also why the slang that kids use these days is almost incomprehensible to the older generations.
Also, some words are just inherently funny-sounding. I’m particularly fond of saying words with an “oo” sound in them, like toodleloo and hooligan. And if you read my column about reduplicative words earlier this year, you might remember fun ones like “flimflam” and “skimble-skamble.” The kind of words that just smash syllables together in satisfying ways.
But speaking of funny words, another article on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website caught my eye this week. This one is a list of silly 19th century words that I thought other people might enjoy reading too. Some might be familiar because they’re still used in more recent years, but others have been largely lost to the sands of time.
Here are my favorite ones from the list:
Flummadiddle – “something foolish or worthless”
It’s earliest use, back in 1827, was a description of extra frills and fringe on a dress. Considering the definition, that makes sense. About 20 years later, people had started using the word more as an interjection. A quote from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel said “O folly, fudge, and flummadiddle! We shall wait and see what next.”
By that point, the word had taken on a broader meaning than just fashion critique. And Merriam-Webster notes that it had become a synonym for words like “fiddle-faddle” and “flapdoodle” which both mean “nonsense.”
Slumgullion – “a meat stew”
I don’t know about you people, but if someone offered me a bowl of “slumgullion,” I’m not sure I’d want to taste it. It doesn’t sound like a very appealing meal, does it?
Apparently, the original definition actually referred to many unpleasant and unfortunate things like “an insipid drink” or the bits of whale left behind on the decks of a whaling ship. Gross!
All things considered, I think I’d take the slumgullion stew over the whale bits.
Katzenjammer – “a hangover”
The dictionary’s earliest oldest source for this word comes in 1834. It has German roots which translate to “the cat’s misery.” No one is quite sure why “the cat’s misery” symbolizes a hangover, but some speculate that a wailing cat might sound the same as someone miserable after a long night of partying too hard.
The word isn’t used much these days, but it also popped up as the name of 20th-century comic strip “The Katzenjammer Kids.”
Highfalutin – “pretentious, fancy”
Do you know anyone who could be described as a highfalutin person? I can probably think of a few, but I won’t hold it against them. The earliest known use of the word was back in 1839, and it’s still used somewhat regularly to this day.
The dictionary notes that this is a good word to describe a pretentious person without sounding pretentious yourself. Otherwise, you might use fancier-sounding words like grandiloquent, fustian, and orotund.
Personally, I think I’ll stick to using “highfalutin” instead.
Bodacious – “very good or impressive”
Younger people might recognize this word from the film “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and think it’s modern-day slang, but it’s actually been around since the early 19th century. Today people might use the word to describe something as excellent or attractive.
In the 1800s, however, the meaning was more like “outright” and “unmistakable.” It’s strange how a word gets created and then recycled more than 100 years later to mean something just a bit different than before.
Absquatulate – “to depart suddenly, to abscond”
Here’s a word that probably isn’t very useful and not really that easy to spell, but I kind of like the idea of it becoming popular again. Just imagine asking for volunteers for an unpleasant job, and then discovering a moment later that everyone has somehow absquatulated from the room!
According to Merriam-Webster, the earliest mention of this word is from an 1830 article in the Newbern Sentinel newspaper in North Carolina. The article was about an unpublished dictionary and included several examples of its contents. Other words from that article that have been forgotten all these years later include “ramsquaddled” and “spontinaceously.”
Slantindicular – “somewhat oblique”
This is my favorite one on the list simply for the way it makes perfect sense. If you’re not familiar with the word “oblique,” the definition is “neither perpendicular nor parallel.” And if something isn’t perpendicular or parallel, then you might imagine it looks slanted, right? In which case, slantindicular is the perfect word!
This bit of vocabulary is actually a mash-up of two different words “slanting” and “perpendicular” which I think makes it incredibly easy to remember. (But if I visit someone’s home and notice that all the picture frames look slantindicular on the wall, I will refrain from pointing it out even though I have a word to describe it now.)
Impress your friends by throwing these highfalutin words into your regular conversations, and be sure to check out Merriam-Webster’s website for more bodacious old words.
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.