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Words are like local shops

Words are like local shops – it’s a case of use them or lose them. I was shocked to hear that ‘charabanc’ and ‘aerodrome’ have been expunged from the Oxford English Dictionary. But how can that be, when there is a sign for Haverfordwest Aerodrome just down the road from here? And last summer Marc and I went with a couple of friends on what can only be called a charabanc, a (hilarious) local coach trip to the Brecon canal. 

But clearly we didn’t use charabanc or aerodrome enough so both those have gone and the problem is that once they have gone, however much we suddenly realise we loved them, we can’t easily get them back. 

The people behind the  ‘shop local’ organisation are trying to promote local shops and businesses, maybe we should have a similar campaign for words. Some kind of system of encouraging people to use our favourites in order to keep them alive. Louis de Bernières suggests that it’s a good idea to scour the dictionary and to put a couple of pretty obscure words into the first few pages of a novel as it sets a good tone. (I have just scoured his book Birds Without Wings, a wonderful engrossing read, and quickly found ‘kaval’, ‘mendicant’ and ‘Circassian’!) But finding underused words in books and magazines from time to time isn’t enough, we have to use them day to day. I hardly dare say it, but we need to spread the word! 

Some years ago I went through a period of having to go to some pretty dull cocktail parties, and to make it less of an ordeal my partner and I selected a couple of words before going in that we would try to bring casually into the conversation. We gave each other points for how successful we were. I scored particularly well I seem to remember for an inspired combined use of ‘intransigent’ and ‘giraffe’. 

In memory of that success I have decided to start my own ‘use them or lose them’ campaign by introducing some of my favourites into my blog, my tweets and possibly even my day to day chit chat. I am starting with ‘equanimity’ and ‘detritus’- two of my favourite underachievers. So, unless you are able to accept the demise of your words/local village shops with equanimity, I suggest you start using them, otherwise they will become part of the inevitable detritus of globalisation!

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38 thoughts on “Words are like local shops

  1. If we use only words people are familiar with, is there a chance we could end up with “Newspeak”? (Orwell, 1984). Or maybe the “ant speak” from White’s “Once and Future King”: “Done.” “Not done.”

    Excellent campaign!

  2. I have just used ‘dandled’, which is what I always did with my son as a small child. I’m delighted to find so many folk with a bent towards interesting diction. Thank you for reminding us of the charabanc, which conjures a bygone age when existed the omnibus. And, by the bye, when taking the train, I invariably go to the railway station. 😉

  3. Reblogged this on hookedonfoodireland and commented:
    The demise of words… and (from me) could we ever lose the over-use of ‘absolutely’?

  4. But is there a ‘graveyard’ equivalent for overused words like ABSOLUTELY?? Aaaargh it raises my ire on a regular basis ;-D Great work and please keep it up. We are a minority breed!

  5. Check out Save The Words dot org. The site seems to be having trouble, but if you access it by first going to Google, you can get it to open. It’s awesome! The endangered words actually call out, “Pick me! Pick me!” as you scroll over them. Once you “adopt” a word and solemnly swear to do your utmost to bring it back into convention, you get a printable certificate with your word on it! I use it with my students all the time, but oddly, they all LOVE the word “magistricide.”

    • That’s a great site, thanks so much for mentioning it. Thankfully a lot of people seem keen not to let words go. I’m Tweeting an underused word everyday now and they get a lot of interest. @helencareybooks

  6. This is such a great post. I love words. Detritus is one of my favorites. My five year old is becoming a lover of words as well. I never dumb down my vocabulary when talking to children and he is always asking what words mean. I love it.

  7. V. A. Givens on said:

    Discombobulated. One of my faves and I never see it nearly enough. 🙂

  8. Effluvium. Jumentous. Both used yesterday whilst writing about a horse – despite my best efforts to ‘keep it simple, stupid’.

  9. The word ‘palaver’ makes me think of a Russian loaf of bread.

  10. I think the best way to make sure words are not lost is to pass them down to our children. My kids (7 and 11) have huge vocabularies. I have never censored anything I have said to them because they might not know the word. As a result they never shy away from asking the definition of a word.
    It makes me quite proud when people marvel at some of the words that come out of their mouths. Word games in the car are a favourite way to pass the time on a car trip.
    Last night at supper we discussed the differences between how Canadians and Americans spell some very common words. eg. colour and color. We came up with a bunch of them. It was my oldest who came up with the topic.
    As a child I was always reprimanded if I spoke using slang, improper tense or any other butchering of the English language. I am the same with my children.

    • Thanks for this Electa, yes, having a good range of language and the ability to use it is such an important life skill and yet so many parents (and teachers) let children get away with poor English. Sounds like your children will have a head start!

  11. Am currently reading “The Gospel of Judas” – an interesting novel by Simon Mawer – and he uses the word “exiguous” all the time! I must admit I’d never come across it before & had to look it up: it means “very small”!

  12. cameronlawton on said:

    This is very like a game I used to play with my language students. I’d give them a list of words and tell them they had to use them five times in the lesson – if they used them a) gramatically correctly and b) in a believable context they won a sweetie.

    The sweeties were worth nothing financially but the competition to “win” them was immense.

    • That sounds like a fun learning aid too. My aim is to get people to use the ‘underused’ words enough so that they come back into fashion! I think I’ve got a long way to go ….?

  13. I read your post to my husband, a 7th and 8th grade English teacher (13 and 14 year olds), and he said one of his students came up with the word ‘charabanc’ this year as a vocabulary word. The idea is that they bring in a word from a book they are reading – one they don’t know, and that becomes one of the words the whole class learns that week.
    I think it is really a matter of reading old books. I learn a lot of ‘new’ ones that was.

    • What a brilliant idea, I am also so pleased to hear that 13 and 14 year olds are actually reading books, especially old ones! It must be great for them too to feel they have a kind of ownership over the word – I bet they never forget it!

  14. Hi Helen,

    So poor old detritus is being rubbed away, in keeping with its original Latin meaning and the Yanks at Dictionary.com have kept faith with your charabanc but refer to an aerodrome as (“chiefly British”) “an airdrome”. Small mercies even if the O has become detritus.

    Jonathan Crutchfield

    • Fellow Brits will be heartened to know that there is also a sign in Beccles, Suffolk, to the ‘Aerodrome.’ Talking of ‘detritus’ and its possible loss, I am reminded how words shift and get altered or even blurred. In a radio interview with people in Birmingham about rubbish collection, several people referred to it as ‘Refuge collection.’ Image of tents and overnight shelters being cleared away by a zealous council.

    • Hi Jonathan, thanks so much for this, yes, shame about the detrital ‘o’ though!

  15. Reblogged this on AOO Authors, Offers & Others and commented:
    I’ve already commented so I’ll just be a little immature and say, “It’s my birthday, it’s my birthday, uh-huh, it’s my birthday!”

  16. Aerodrome is obscure? Mendicant? Circassian? Surely intransigent is only a challenge in combination with giraffe? Equanimity? Detritus? Some day soon only those who are pedantic will know what pedantic means. I wouldn’t risk calling someone a pedant even now. 🙂

  17. Robin Endsin on said:

    Thanks for this blog Helen. It feels a little like a commonplace book for the ‘net. Here on the Canadian prairies it seems that we are in danger of our understated Saskatchewanian weather words being replaced with hyperbolic descriptors designed to encourage fear or maybe just to draw media attention. For example our recent snowstorm was billed as a Saskatchewan “scream” by weather reporters. This was a little much for a prairie storm that dumped less than 10 cm of snow with only 30 to 40 km winds. Listening to the weather reports I was overcome with “fearage” – a mixture of fear and rage. Don’t imagine fearage will make the cut for the OED but I love it!
    Off to check out “The Art of Loving”

    • Thanks for this Robin, yes, weather language is another whole issue, we have our fair share of it (and weather) here in the UK! Nice to see you are in Canada, we got married in Fernie and have a great friend from Saskatchewan who says you can always tell a prairie girl becasue she is someone who likes to sit on the porch and watch her dog run away for three days! I hope you enjoy The Art of Loving – you might like to check out the wartime novels too as there is a great Canadian hero, Ward Frazer, in those.

    • I like fearage and will use it. It reminds me of a verbal phase my son went through when all words had a suffix ‘-age’ attached to them. As in ‘I’m going to meet up with my friendage tonight.’ Meaning friends in their entirety.

  18. HI Helen, I agree about the ‘use it or lose it’ threat with endangered words. And some of them are among the most emotive or onomatopoeic in the language. In my own novels, I always make sure to give an outing to some under-used words. Recent favourites are ‘Skirr’ as in ‘the skirring wings of a startled pheasant’ and ‘blorting’ which is the noise attributed to slightly annoyed bullocks, but which I used for a very annoyed lorry driver, who leaned on his klaxon and made the above-mentioned sound. I think of underused words as amiable, if faded, maiden aunts, so very easily left at the side of the room. We writers ought to gallantly offer them a dance as often as we can. Best of luck with the Art of Loving. I shall read it next, after my book club monthly read which this time, is ‘The boy in striped pyjamas’. I will need a bit of heart-throbbing after that one, I think. xx Natalie Meg Evans

  19. What a great idea. I think I’ll try to use reparative today …

  20. My eldest son has a very extensive vocabulary and is still surprised to find people who don’t understand what he considers to be ordinary words. Your party game sounded fun!

    • Yes, it’s a good way to while away a dull party! You shold recommend ‘Between the Woods and the Water’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor to your son – lots of amazing words in there, a marvelous, erudite book, particularly for anyone interested in travel or language!

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