Where do my obscure words of the week come from?

I’ve been running my ‘obscure word of the week’ series for quite a while. I’m in no danger of running out, either – English has over a million words in it, most of which are pretty obscure, one way or another.

I thought I’d mention where I am getting these from. I have various sources which include the entire original 11-volume Oxford English Dictionary, which I happen to have in my bookshelf. Specifically, I’ve got the 1971 ‘compact’ version, which has 171,476 current words and 47,156 obsolete ones. Large parts of it are older – this started as a nineteenth century project. J. R. R. Tolkien, apparently, defined ‘walrus’ when he worked for it after the First World War.

Of course English keeps on evolving – and to meet that I also keep a weather eye out on the interwebs. But for the most part, the OED is a wonderful source that never stops giving, particularly when it comes to the older words and their origins.

For me, obscure words and how they evolved are endlessly fascinating, because they paint a picture of the evolution of language – mostly it’s about how English pursues other languages down dark alleys, mugs them for vocabulary and then riffles their pockets for more. Not to mention the wonderful contribution of Mr Wm. Shakespeare, Esq, who – if he didn’t have a word for what he wanted – would usually make one up. Bedroom for instance. Nobody agrees on exactly how many he actually invented – anything from around 420 to 1700 has been cited. But they apparently include words such as: disgraceful, equivocal, futurity and (wait for it) kickie-wickie.

Do you like obscure words? What do you find interesting in them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019


8 thoughts on “Where do my obscure words of the week come from?

  1. lol, I love your characterization of English as a common ruffian. The allusion to colonialism is not lost on me. I do really enjoy English, it is my 1.5th language: My parents spoke it but everyone else where I grew up didn’t. I started really adopting english when I realized it could do things my native language couldn’t. Words like “Illustrious” and “Abolish” were so pretty and specific, they fit niche abstractions in a way I hadn’t seen before. This Is why Im a fan of obscure words, they take a phrase and allow you to say it in a handful of syllables.

    1. English is such a flexible language – and expressive in so many ways. What’s more, if there isn’t a word to suit… make one up. It’s what English is about! 🙂 I am not being entirely hyperbolic – it’s a socially shared entity that evolves with those who speak it, through time and across places and spaces. And it’s all good.

  2. Having a lot of words at one’s disposal is essential for a writer.The more tools at one’s disposal, the better. It’s also interesting to identify what languages were pilfered for specific words, and if you recognize bits of those languages in a word, you can figure out meanings of similar words derived from that language. Words like euphonious, euphemism, eugenics, etc.

    1. Absolutely true. It’s extraordinary how the patterns of how English was pilfered – er – originated as a social phenomenon – emerge once we get going on looking for them. And it’s an endlessly fascinating field that never stops giving.

    1. All languages evolve – and, it seems, appropriate words from each other. I guess English is the one I know best (and so do many of us) so the way it evolves is more obvious. The new tech word issue is interesting – here it seems that English has taken over and the English words are used in other languages. I think only the French aren’t playing along, their word for computer is still ‘ordinateur’.

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