We all know that language is an instrument for communication. How we use language affects the effectiveness of our communication and so, the more words we have at our disposal the more likely we are to successfully communicate exactly what we mean. During my years of teaching English, I regularly encouraged my pupils to read widely – both in print and online – and to try and incorporate newly discovered words in their speech and writing. They usually found the latter is usually easier to do than the former.

My general experience has been that it is by exploring the words – rather than merely looking up their meaning in a dictionary – that they become more meaningful and more useful and thus easier to use. In August 2014, for example, I posted an entry on MARTINET as an example of where an exploration of the etymology of words can lead one to.

Two words struck me during the course of my reading this morning:

GOBBET: Dating back to C14, this word has come into English via Old French and can refer to a droplet of liquid, or more commonly to a small chunk of food – usually applied to raw meat. In the context I found it, the word referred to a fragment of text or information. Again, harking back to teaching I could have set a gobbet from Hamlet for an examination i.e. a short extract of the play. Interestingly, upon further investigation, I find the word can also refer to a short commentary given on an assigned primary source – presumably that could refer to the answer to the question set on the play mentioned above. It is not a word I can recall hearing in conversation, but it sounds so good that it must be worth finding a reason to use it in the future.

MARE’S NEST: This is sometimes written as a compound word with a hyphen, but more frequently without and dates back to C16. Clearly the meaning of the word is idiomatic for mares do not make nests in the literal sense. It was originally used to describe a discovery that was thought to be important, but which proved to be worthless. In his book Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis says that “’Brilliant’ explanations of a passage often show that a clever, insufficiently informed man has found one more mare’s nest.” He is referring to the way we might interpret the meaning of words without truly understanding the context of them – or how they might have been used in ages past. Since C19, however, the meaning more frequently refers to a confused mess i.e. you may describe your desk or bedroom or wardrobe as a mare’s nest that desperately needs tidying.

Then, serendipitously as things often happen, while I was penning this an e-mail arrived directing me to a collection of old British dialect words to incorporate in our conversations. Of the fifty of them, these are the ones I like the sound of:

CLOMPH: To walk in shoes which are too large for your feet. (Central England)
FLENCH: When the weather looks like it’s going to improve but it never does, then its flenched. (Scots)
FLOBY-MOBLY: The perfect word for describing the feeling of not being unwell, but still not quite feeling your best. A Scots equivalent was atweesh-an-atween. (Central England)
SLITHERUM: A dawdling, slow-moving person. (East England)
I wonder which ones you will choose.


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