History - Word play for the day

21st December 2012 at 00:00
A book of hours embraces lost language for every occasion

Most people would rather be woken by an "aubade" than an "expurgefactor", but that's not likely in these modern times.

At least the time of "uhtceare" would have passed. And if you didn't overindulge at the Christmas party the night before, you could congratulate yourself on not feeling "philogrobolized".

Confused? It's not surprising: many of these words and phrases have so fallen out of fashion that they are almost indecipherable today. But they are among dozens to feature in Mark Forsyth's The Horologicon, or Book of Hours, a compelling tribute to language lost.

Forsyth describes these words as "too beautiful to live long, too amusing to be taken seriously, too precise to become common, too vulgar to survive in polite society or too poetic to thrive in this age of prose".

Some of these forgotten words are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary but they are printed in alphabetical order and it might take you hours to find them. The Horologicon lists them according to the hours of the day - waking up, bathing, having breakfast, going to work - and includes other pastimes encountered more occasionally: flirting, falling in love, eating out, getting drunk and stumbling home.

Some of the pastimes are mere historical curiosities. In Victorian times, for example, a day out might have included watching a hanging (also known as giving a criminal a "Spitalfields breakfast" or a "hearty choke with caper sauce").

Forsyth cautions that his gem of a book should on no account be read cover to cover in one sitting. I'm not so sure. It's so wittily compiled and flows so effortlessly that it's hard to put down right through to the last chapter, which is appropriately devoted to bedtime.

There, one hopes, you'll be able at last to rest in peace - unless you find yourself subjected to a "curtain lecture" or forced to indulge in "gymnologising", something that was all too familiar to the quarrelsome Ancient Greeks.

Hopefully you'll be blessed, instead, with "levament", although in a modern marriage you can never count on it.

The Horologicon, or Book of Hours by Mark Forsyth is published by Icon Books, #163;12.99.

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