I found another word book: The Disappearing Dictionary, by David Crystal (MacMillan, 2015). It’s “A Treasury of Lost English Dialect Words” and it is a delight. Did I ever mention that I love words?
Crystal has an impressive list of credits of his own but he begins with an account of Joseph Wright (1855-1930), an illiterate quarry-boy and mill worker who became a professor of comparative philology at Oxford University. It took him twenty-three years of research and seven years to publish The English Dialect Dictionary (1898), Volumes 1 to 7, along with indices and a Dialect Grammar, which came out in 1905. I gather that it’s monumental, with many quotations, sources, cross-references, pronunciations, etymologies and variant spellings as well as the geographical locations in England, Wales and Scotland. Those of you who catch my blog regularly may remember my enthusiasm for Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, another mother lode of indigenous words and phrases.
Crystal’s book is intended in part to celebrate Joseph Wright in an accessible form but he says his other aim is to celebrate the dialects themselves. Like me he finds old words fascinating, well, not like me, it’s his life and career. Anyway, for this lovely little book he took about 900 words and expressions from the big dictionary and presented them alphabetically in a dazzling collection of nearly 500 entries, a mere fraction of the total, but Wow, they are marvellous.
It’s a dipper of a book and I have only begun to dip. I found words I hope will make their way into my speech, ones that I like the sound of, or the usefulness of, and words with Old Norse and Old English provenance, which I love. Crystal’s remarks are fun and up-to date, for example, look at this entry:
skype (noun) Scotland
“A mean worthless fellow; a lean person of disagreeable manner and temper. From Selkirkshire: ‘If he durst I would claw the puppy hide of him! He is as great a skype as I know of.’ The dialect meaning was presumably unknown to the founders of a well-known internet messaging service.”
I’ve only just begun.