The English language is a funny thing. It has been around for centuries and since language is an ever changing thing, adapting itself to the custom of the times, the English spoken today is not the same as it was 50, 100 or 200 years ago. Pronunication may change, words are added to the vocabulary, but just as easily words can become disused. For whatever reason, but mostly, because that which they describe is no longer used or becomes less pertinent, words become obsolete and disappear from the language. Words that this happens to most are fashionable words for good or bad things. Think of words such as cool, groovy, swell and awesome. All essentially indicating the same thing, but their use very much subject to specific periods in time. For words that indicate negative feelings, emotions or actions, the same is true.
Profanities, just like words describing joy, are very much subject to trends. This goes for any language. The interesting thing about these type of words is that the words that come to replace them are usually worse in degree. So just a profanity isn’t enough: you have to outdo the previous one. It is an inflation in terminology. Take for example the standard response to the question ‘How are you?’. Slowly but surely it is changing from ‘I’m fine’ into ‘I’m great’. As if fine is just fine and thus not enough. Similarly, in Dutch, ‘schavuit’ or ‘schobbejak’ used to be ways of calling someone names. By now, they have gone horribly out of style and are actually now used for comedic purposes. Words that used be the worst you could possibly call someone, are now the subject of comedic sketches and a thing to laugh about. English has many of these words as well: words that used to be a bad thing to call someone, but now seem silly or obsolete. Some of them have even disappeared all together and haven’t been cited or used in over 100 years. Here’s a selection of a few of them. Maybe we should bring some of these back?
A pretended or false friend, a secret enemy.
A women who cheats on her husband and ‘swerves’ from bed to bed.
Under rule of a child. Similar to henpecked (under the rule of a woman).
In Devonshire this used to mean sensible to cold, but in a more sinister meaning, this refers to a person who is cold and sickly and who makes your blood curl.
A stupid, dull fellow
An outsider or stranger.
Scolding, foul-mouthed woman.
A spiteful person
Someone who stuffs himself with food
A child guilty of deceptive practices
Which of these long lost terms do you think should be reinstated?
If you understand Dutch and like this topic, then check out this article on ‘ dirty songs’ in Dutch from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Source: Kacirck, Jeffrey (2000), The Word Museum, The most remarkable English words ever forgotten, Touchstone, New York.