I’ve always enjoyed reading time travel stories, and have often imagined what it would be like to step back into another era of American history. But it has occurred to me that I might have trouble understanding the language, not because they didn’t speak English (most did), but because they would have spoken it differently. The first settlers from England would probably have spoken with what I think of as a “British accent.”
And what about slang expressions? Just since my own girlhood in the 1970s, language for expressing enthusiasm about something has shifted from words like “neat-o” and “groovy” to expressions such as “totally awesome!” And the Brits prefer “brilliant.”
Even formal language changes. Vocabulary can shift in meaning over time, and new words are created to express new ideas, fashions, and technologies. I’ve discovered that it can be fun just to compare an old dictionary to a modern one. Certainly nobody wore Crocs or Uggs when I was growing up. We did wear flip-flops, but we called them thongs, which of course has a completely different meaning today!
Just for fun, I spent some time looking at Samuel Johnson’s famous 1755 dictionary, and have selected some words that sounded especially interesting to my ears. Take a look, then try saying them out loud to have a listen as well!
dizzard n.s. (from dizzy) A blockhead; a fool.
merry-andrew n.s. A buffoon; a zany; a jack-pudding.
draffy adj. Worthless; dreggy.
blatteration n.s. Noise; senseless roar.
jogger n.s. One who moves heavily and dully.
ninnyhammer n.s. A simpleton.
nincompoop n.s. A fool; a trifler.
skimbleskamble adj. Wandering; wild.
woodnote n.s. Wild musick.
spindleshanked adj. Having small legs.
muckender n.s. A handkerchief.
pledget n.s. A small mass of lint.
speculum A looking glass; mirror.
tucker n.s. A small piece of linen that shades the breast of women.
tattoo n.s. The beat of drum by which soldiers are warned to their quarters.
yare adj. Ready; dexterous; eager.
It’s not hard to see how our current definition of jogger came to be, since jogging is really a slow, rather plodding form of running. But it’s harder to imagine how our current definition of tattoo, as an inked image on the body, came from the idea of a warning drumbeat. Does a tattoo machine make a drumming sound or motion? Any thoughts on this?
I thought it would be fun to try writing a short note or paragraph using some of these words. Then, I thought it would be even more fun to see what you might write! So, I have a writing challenge for you, with a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card as the prize:
Correctly use at least six of the words above in a paragraph (at least four complete sentences) of your choice. It may be fiction or nonfiction. All entries will be judged by a panel of three educators, and the winning entry will be posted on the website! Girls ages 9-12 may apply. Please include your full name, age, and email address. Send entries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be creative and have fun!
Are you yare?