Using Old, Familiar Words That Nobody Has Ever Heard Before

Yo, wazzup with this shiz?

Yo, wazzup with this shiz?

If I told you that my life was “at sixes and sevens” right now, would you know what I was talking about?  You would if you lived in the year 1815.  That knowledge is surprisingly un-useful, however, when trying to communicate in 2013.

I’ve always loved to read.  That love has allowed me to greatly expand my vocabulary over the years.  That’s a good thing.  The down side of this is how often I come up with words that nobody else knows.  Sometimes they’re so obscure I don’t even know them.

One of my favorite time periods in history is the Regency era in England, around 1815.  I love the sparkling romances penned by Jane Austen and her modern-day (circa 1950) reincarnation, Georgette Heyer.  I have read every one of her books many times over since I got hooked on them in high school.  They’re like old friends.  When I check out a dusty, old hardback from the local library, often the only name on its old-fashioned card is “Peg” in various colors of ink and faded pencil stretching over the last 25 years.

I was talking to someone the other day and I mentioned that life was especially chaotic right now.  It wasn’t until I noted her look of confusion that I realized what I actually said was that life was “at sixes and sevens”.  Not surprisingly, that Regency-era expression meant nothing to her.

The problem with having read so much from one time period is that I forget that nobody else talks that way.   As new words and expressions come into vogue and old ones die out, the idiom of the day is very different now from what it was 200 years ago.

In addition to words and expressions that have passed out of favor, there are scores I know only contextually from seeing them in print.  I don’t know their exact definition and, more problematic (at least as far as conversation is concerned), is that I’ve never heard them pronounced.  In an effort to say precisely what I mean (and maybe impress the other person), I’ll occasionally try out one of these “never-heard” specimens only to be corrected by my more learned audience.

“That’s not how you say that!” they respond. Shot down.

One word that never ceases to bother me is artisanal.  Implying that something is hand-crafted has become such a popular advertising ploy that you see this word stuck on everything from beer to factory-produced bread.  Everyone I’ve heard say it pronounces the word “ar-TEES-uh-nal”.  But according to Merriam-Webster online, the accent is on the first syllable “AR-tuh-zen-al”.  If I say it correctly, I sound stupid.

This bugged me enough that I wrote to the Merriam-Webster editor about it.  Their response?  They said it is mispronounced so often they were now considering adding the alternative pronunciation to their site.  The experts change to match reality.  I guess that’s the beauty of a living language.

The most dedicated wordsmith I ever knew was my father-in-law, Bob.  He devoured words and never stopped studying and improving his vocabulary.   He delighted in using his new words in everyday conversation.

We had an ongoing, friendly disagreement on this topic for years.

Bob said that having (and using) an ever-increasing vocabulary allows you to say EXACTLY what you want so you can communicate more precisely.  I agreed, but argued that you can’t truly communicate if you are using words you KNOW the other person doesn’t understand.  He responded that if somebody didn’t understand a word, they should look it up.  To which I replied, that kind of exchange isn’t communicating, it’s a vocabulary lecture.

I think we were both right.

In daily conversation we need to use words that most will understand.  We should also challenge people to expand their vocabularies.  Especially ourselves.

After all, lifelong learning is the best way to avoid becoming a caper-witted rattlepate.

What words do you know that nobody else ever uses?

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About pegoleg

R-A-M-B-L-I-N-G-S, Ram...Blin!
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93 Responses to Using Old, Familiar Words That Nobody Has Ever Heard Before

  1. eviejordan says:

    Streak of lean, is a phrase my family use to describe going on a diet. Not sure if anyone else uses it! But have been trying to be on a streak of lean this Jan. Am failing!

    Like

  2. bigsheepcommunications says:

    The least you could do is include a glossary with your blog posts!

    Like

  3. Penultimate! I recently discovered antepenultimate, but I haven’t had a chance to use it.

    Your comment about mispronouncing words makes me smile. My sibs and I also learned most of our vocabulary through reading, so there were many moments one of us would say something and all the others would agree . . . while others looked on with confused expressions.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      I love that word, but I always want to put an extra T in after the “pen”. I challenge you to find 3, relatively non-tortuous ways to work antepenultimate into conversation today. Go for it, Deb!

      Like

  4. I say “craptastic” and “faboo” and I tell my husband he can put his “shizzy in my dizzy”. But I really mean that he can put his dirty dishes in the dishwasher. And regarding the changing language, apparently I don’t use hyphens appropriately. Like the rules have changed. So now I always have to Google if I am writing a “thank-you” note or just a “thank you” note.

    Sorry you are at sixes and sevens. Did you hear seven ATE nine? Ba-ba-bomp. Snare. It’ll get better.

    Like

  5. mistyslaws says:

    I find myself having to dumb down my vocabulary on a daily basis when speaking to people in court, who are otherwise less educated than myself. (God, that sounds snobbish!). So, actually, I will speak as I always would, then realize that they might not understand the meaning of certain words and phrases, so say it again in more colloquial language. I, too, find myself reading words that I have seen in print a ton, but have no idea how they are pronounced. I tend to not use them while speaking, so as not to sound ridiculous, even if I know what it means and it would fit perfectly with what I want to say. Writing is so much easier!! Talking be hard, yo.

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    • pegoleg says:

      It DOESN’T sound snobbish. It sounds like reality, unfortunately. Although hearing middle-aged white people trying to verbally get down with they funky selves when speaking to those less educated can be, at best, entertaining. Present company (of writers) excluded, of course.

      Like

  6. I am constantly looking up definitions. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t. Especially when I read blogs or write my own posts. One of my prized possessions is my old, beat-up giant dictionary I’ve had since I was writing in high school.

    Jim claims he doesn’t understand half the words I use, but I think that’s just his clever way of shifting the blame to me, when I know full well it’s simply because he’s tuned me out completely.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Great ploy, Jim, except when he looks up from the TV and says “Huh? I didn’t understand those big words, honey” and all you said was “Gimme a beer.”

      We have my father-in-laws old, faded red dictionary and when I look something up, often a little slip of paper will fall out with his notes on a particular word he was studying. I love it!

      Like

  7. notquiteold says:

    I love “Defenestration.”

    Like

  8. misswhiplash says:

    I know exactly what you mean..you are in sixes and seven whilst I am in a two and eight…..long may old words retain the pleasure of their useage

    Like

  9. I am a collector of words. I love them. But the most wonderful words are lost to so many people that they are rendered useless. What good is a wonderfully descriptive word if few people understand its meaning. After all, words are meant for communication and if I use a word no one knows, the only thing I’m communicating is that I know arcane words. That tends to people off. Unfortunate, but true.

    I love the “trundle.” It means to move or walk with a rolling gait. My Old English Sheep could like no body’s business! 🙂

    The first word that caught my eye when I was a teenager and started “collecting” words was lackadaisical. Ooh, I love that word, too!

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Hey, thanks to way too many Christmas cookies, I’ve been trundling myself lately! Love it.

      Maybe you need to start hanging out with a literary guild or others who know all those great words to keep them fresh and alive.

      Lackadaisical – what a nice feeling on the tongue!

      Like

      • I discovered that word when I was a young teen and tried to use it in conversation. It went over like a lead balloon. But I still use it today, to much better effect.

        Literary guilds in my area are as common as palm trees (I live near the Canadian border). But that was a nice suggestion. I just read a lot and enjoy books by authors who really know vocabulary.

        Like

  10. I had such a problem with this when I was a little girl. I lived inside books, many of them very, very old. When I saw something odd, I would tilt my head and ejaculate “How queer!” It won me NO bosom friends.

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  11. Audrey says:

    I’m right there with you on this. I’ve been a life-long book worm (and homeschooled until I was 15) and felt like I had to dumb down my vocabulary a little bit when I started high school so my friends could understand me. There is merit to catering our vocabulary to those we speak with but I agree that there’s something wonderful about always broadening our own minds too. And now I’m off to check out this Georgette Heyer person. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      It’s practically the kiss-of-death socially in high school to be seen as smart. Until about senior year when all at once it seemed there was room for brains as well as beauty and brawn.

      Georgette Heyer is a very specific taste. If you love Jane Austen you’ll love her. If not an Austen fan, she probably won’t float your boat.

      Like

      • Audrey says:

        It really is! As if being a homeschooler isn’t awkward enough sometimes…
        I’m a devoted Austenite so I’ve taken the measures of downloading one of Heyer’s books onto my e-reader already. Yay!

        Like

  12. ginweb.1@juno.com says:

    Nice tribute to Bob. Somewhere up there he is smiling down on you!

    Like

  13. pattisj says:

    Huh? Sorry, Peg, I really was paying attention in class. My brain refuses to work on command, and can’t come up with ANY words right this minute.

    Like

  14. My vocabulary is pretty sad.
    And I tend to trip over most of the words I actually manage to spit out.
    Sometimes I get frustrated and just start pointing, grunting and pounding on the furniture.
    🙂

    Like

  15. halefire323 says:

    One of the most hilarious moments of vocabulary misunderstanding came when I was working with another young lady. I asked her why she was so aloof, and she assumed that I was calling her a “loof” and was offended because she had no idea what a “loof” was. Other words that I use frequently are gratuitous, rueful. plethora, and vapid. You should see the looks on faces when I drop one of those into casual conversation. lol

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      How rude! I hate it when people call me a “loof.”

      I’ll never forget chatting with a friend whose 19-year-old daughter just had a baby with a young man to whom she was not married. She was explaining that the father was no longer in the picture at all. She said “and he was so mean. He said the baby was illegitimate – his own child!” I had to gently explain that it wasn’t really a value judgement, it was a fact.

      Like

  16. Elyse says:

    Oh, Peg! Don’t change! My father was a guy who had a totally incomprehensible saying for absolutely everything in life. Nobody ever knew what they meant more often than not. They were one of his most endearing characteristics, and I wish I had written every single one of them down. Now, 12 years later, I can only remember a handful: “Katie Bar the Door!”

    Besides, today’s non-readers are dulllards. We, with Jane Austin at our fingertips, are witty and wise.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      “Katie, bar the door!” sounds like something you’d say if an encyclopedia salesman (or Jehovah’s Witness) came a-callin. I love those family sayings – they need to be preserved at all costs!

      I wrote a piece for the local paper about having trouble sleeping (thank you, menopause) entitled “Looking For Mr. Morpheus”. A friend read it, said she really liked it but “none of us knew who Mr. Morpheus was.” This woman was a teacher! If the point is to communicate, I failed miserably. But, is it just me? Shouldn’t one be able to assume certain levels of knowledge, or was that too obscure?

      Like

      • Elyse says:

        One would hope to be able to assume that a teacher might have not only heard of, but induced Mr. Morpheus on occasion.

        The next generation is so screwed. I mean befuddled.

        Like

        • pegoleg says:

          Ha ha! I’m SURE she’s induced that particular god once or twice – that’s an occupational hazard for teachers, isn’t it?

          Both my daughters have impressive vocabularies, so I’m encouraged that the next generation isn’t totally suffering from fuddlization.

          Like

  17. Quite a lot of the older generation here in the UK still say “I’m all at sixes and sevens!”

    My other half went to a very posh private boarding school which taught him wonderful vocabulary and he quite often comes out with words or phrases that I haven’t heard of. Last night it was ‘quagmire’. Is that a word you know? It’s ‘an awkward, complex, or hazardous situation’. I like the word, I’m going to add it to my internal dictionary.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Thanks for telling me that expression is still used. Maybe it’s a geographic thing then, rather than old vs new.

      I know and love quagmire – it is definitely worthy of working into one’s repertoire. You’ll have to use it in conversation often in the next few days to get it fixed in your brain, though, at least that’s how it works for me.

      Like

  18. lexy3587 says:

    I love Georgette Heyer. Love her so much. I use words that are less common, though if some of them are less understood, I probably just don’t notice other peoples’ blank stares. In highschool, I used “ought” in conversation – a girl I’d gone to school with since kindergarten asked me if I was “british or something?”
    My favourite mispronunciation of an always-read word is my sister’s pronunciation of the ‘b’ in Subtle. I got to inform her that the b is, in fact, subtle.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      You’re the first Heyer fan I’ve ever come across! I just got a new Android tablet and you can download library books on it. I’ve already downloaded the 5 Heyer books that our library system has, and am seriously considering purchasing others from Amazon. Although buying books really goes against the grain with me when we’ve got the most fabulous invention known to man readily available for free – the public library.

      Those pesky “b”s! I had an employee who always said “supposebly” and I would see the word coming a mile off and brace myself not to visibly flinch when it arrived. I wasn’t sure if it was part of her job description to not mess up words so I never corrected her.

      Like

  19. Al says:

    One of the funniest and strangest things my grandmother used to say is “Well, I guess the folks are about as good as the people.” She used this when someone would get a little too haughty for their own good.

    Personally, I use it when someone calls me a caper-witted rattlepate.

    Like

  20. I love British literature, too, and am a big Jane Austen fan. I use the word cantankerous often, and people look at me like I am crazy. They are cantankerous. 😉

    Like

  21. Go Jules Go says:

    Okay I need a moment to get over being smug about pronouncing artisanal correctly. …Okay.

    “The experts change to match reality.” It’s so disturbing. And I love this question of whether or not an expansive vocabulary can actually enhance your ability to communicate, if no one knows what you mean. Me likey words, though, so either way…bring it on!

    At meetings, my former boss used to say, “I think we have a quorum.” That’s a word you don’t hear often. Well. I don’t.

    Like

  22. Tar-Buns says:

    Oh, the power of words and language. Students think it’s ‘dumb’ to learn new vocabulary words. Come to think of it, they think most school stuff is stupid and “I’ll never use this so why do I have to study it?”
    I am becoming a curmudgeon and getting exasperated with whiny students who can’t come up with an original word to describe their sentiments. But I plug on.
    Being a voracious reader truly does build vocabulary and the knowledge to decipher words within context when you don’t know their meaning. Try conveying the value of that to some youngsters. (And I always think of Grandma C. when I see or use the word “youngsters”) 🙂
    Enjoyed the post!

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Me too! I’ll always associate “youngsters” with Grandma. I bet, now that you’re a teacher, you also subscribe to a favorite maxim of hers: “that child needs the board of education applied to her seat of learning!”

      Like

  23. My mother in law, who is from the Tacony section of Philadelphia, used to say a child had “rolled a seven” if they were being cranky. She also used to compare an ornery child to “a bag of cats” which I found particulalry colorful and descriptive.

    I personally find that I’m constantly “peckish” whenever I’m on a diet. I have also found that women will occasionally give me a strange look if I compliment them by telling them that they look “fetching”. Neither of those words is especially antique by my reckoning, but many people just don’t bother going beyond the bare necessities of vocabulary/language.

    We must all walk a fine line when using words which aren’t on the menu at Burger King, as we run the risk of insulting people. By the same token, how else will they possibly learn?

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      “words not on the menu at Burger King” – love that image!

      I can’t see how any woman wouldn’t want to be called fetching, unless she thought it had something to do with dogs.

      Like

  24. k8edid says:

    Just today I was thinking about some of my favorite words – ubiquitous, sartorial, traipse, twitterpated, juxtaposition, behoove, conniving, somnolent…to name a few. I also love one that you have already used above – cogitating. Unfortunately, I seem to keep hearing the same multipurpose f-bomb in nearly every thing I read, watch, listen to, or even overhear. I had to remind a student that it was inappropriate in our classroom setting. I am no prude (by any means) and I am not offended by the occasional use, but I think changes in vernacular haven’t been for the better.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Katy, you must have been reading my mind! As I left the office (about the time you commented as a matter of fact) somebody was talking and laughing outside the bar across the street dropping the f-bomb all over the place. On a public street! And I though the EXACT same words (I’m no prude, but…) and started a mental blog post on the topic. scary.

      I love that in Bambi all the animals were twitterpated in the spring – my kids learned that word when they were 3!

      Like

  25. Sandy Sue says:

    Love, love, love this post, Peg. I find speaking with a British accent as I frolic through my vocabulary field keeps people laughing, even if they don’t understand my meaning.

    Like

  26. Barb says:

    Obviously we all love words. Too bad we don’t get to use so many of them. Like others posting here, I usually make up my own and those within my sphere have learned to translate into whatever they feel like.

    Like

  27. I often use words bigger or more precise than one normally would in conversation. It earns me the look from my sister that says, “what’s with the SAT vocab?” Like your father-in-law, I find that an expansive vocabulary lets me decide the best possible word for what I want to say. I don’t think I use words people don’t know – they just don’t expect them to come up in casual conversation. Yet just yesterday I was trying to explain to my mother (during a game of Bananagrams in which she was trying to spell everything with Zs instead of Ss… “Mom, ‘easy’ is with an S, not a Z. What is wrong with you?”) what a druid is. I know, but I can’t articulate it. (AKA explain it.)
    Also, your use of the phrase “at sixes and sevens” has me singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” It’s in the lyrics.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      That happens to me all the time – I know my way around the word but don’t knoww EXACTLY how to definie it. Bananangrams? What is this strange new thing?

      Like

      • Ohhh, Bananagrams is fun! It’s like a cross between a make-it-yourself crossword puzzle, Scrabble and Uno. Everybody gets a bunch of letters, and you spell out your own words crossword-style, and when someone runs out of their own letters you start all drawing from the pile of extras, until there aren’t enough left for everyone to get one. The first person to run out of letters to use wins.

        Like

  28. egills says:

    I do so love the English language, as a child my father would make us learn 10 words from the English, French and German dictionary so we could spell, describe the meanings and explain when to use it.
    When describing something instead of saying et cetera my boss will say bla bla fishcakes which I just absolutely love.

    Like

  29. My adoptive maternal grandparents were from Germany and spoke German as a first language. My grandfather collected Readers Digest as every month they had the Word section, this is how he expanded his English vocabulary, till they day he died he perused this section, sounding out and memorizing the words; waiting for the opportune time to use them in conversation.

    Now the other side of the family, well they were far more colorful. Southern (Louisiana and I think Mississippi on one side and pure South Texas on the other). I wish I could remember some of their colloquialisms, the only one I remember though is the one so often applied to me:

    “Bring that narrow butt over here so I can tear a knot off it”

    I love language and words, but find in my work I must keep it mostly at an 8th grade level or the eyes gloss over and heads nod.

    My favorite word remains: Zaftig

    Like

  30. My favourite words growing up were ginormous and humungous, I’m not sure where I got them from and my father used to shake his head every time I used them. My Dad has a suite of Aussie sayings that we call Wazisms (his name is Warren), many of which are inappropriate and not at all politically correct but one of the most common ones was a response to us asking what he was building: a wig wam for a gooses bridle 🙂

    Like

  31. stylewaffle says:

    My mum used to say that she looked or felt like the wreck of the hesperus! Memories 🙂

    Like

  32. Pingback: Freshly Pegged! | The Middlest Sister

  33. cannopener says:

    I’ve been sent here by The Middlest Sister. So nice to find another Georgette Heyer fan! I’m sick at the moment, and as far as I’m concerned, mild illnesses were designed by God to allow hardworking mothers to curl up in bed with their Heyer collection. Your favourites?

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Finally! I just reread Grand Sophy last week. How about you?

      Like

      • cannopener says:

        These Old Shades, The Unknown Ajax, and I love the unexpected hero in Cotillion. One I’ve only read once and haven’t found again is the one with the twins, Judith and her brother, who masquerade as each other from time to time. I can’t remember what it’s called. Can you help me?
        My other all time favourite novel that gets re-read about every two years is Cold Comfort Farm.

        Like

        • pegoleg says:

          The Masqueraders – I reread that one 2 weeks ago! The others are all great, of course. I could never get into the more modern mysteries, though.

          Like

          • cannopener says:

            I quite like them, but they’re not a patch on my other holiday staple, Ngaio Marsh. I think she’s better than Agatha Christie. On a par with Dorothy Sayers.

            Like

  34. Shannon says:

    I am not well-read. When see something for which I am unaware of the proper word or term, I’ll simply make one up that “goes” so everyone understands. Like flabalanche. That’s what happens when Pappaw takes off his belt and unbuttons his pants right after a big dinner. Or stalagmah, the poo-like substance that builds in little volcano piles in the sink after four kids have all brushed their teeth in the morning, that I also regularly get to clean. How about a stringle? That’s like the pink fuzzy thing on the floor that you vacuum over repeatedly but never seems to get sucked up.

    I can’t believe you actually contacted the Webster’s editor. Wow. I only look words up in the dictionary after they are surprisingly allowed on my Words (Scrabble) game. I don’t want to look like a complete idiot when I’m texted, “What the hell does that mean?” for an 80-pointer.

    PS – I missed this one in my bloggy absence. Middlest Sister’s link brought me back, so you owe Nicole a martooni!

    Like

  35. awax1217 says:

    I looked up the old expressions: dressing to the nines and shooting the whole nine yards. When I read what they meant they made a lot of sense. Dressing to the nines refers to the nine yards of cloth it requires to manufacture a really good suit. Shooting the whole nine yards refers to an ammo belt on an old bomber. The belt was nine yards long and feed into a machine gun on the sides of the plane. It was used to shoot down planes firing at the bomber. Once you fired the nine yards you had to reload. My wife’s uncle was shot down in one of these planes during World War 2. He is buried in Italy because they did not have time to bring deceased war personal back to the States.

    Like

  36. greatgran141 says:

    I still don’t know what I said to bring this on, but I was once told by a co-worker (did I use the hyphen correctly?) that I speak in “King James English.”

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Yes on the hyphen! I know because I misused it once and had a reader correct me in a most humiliating way. Nothing wrong with King James English – better than The King’s English (thank you…thank you very much.)

      Like

      • greatgran141 says:

        haha. Love it. Love your blog. Wish I could write the tongue-in-cheek kind of wit and have it come across the way yours does. Maybe it’s the equivalent of using words people don’t know. They just don’t get my brand of wit. (smile) can’t find the symbol.

        Oh yes, I was originally sent by the Middlest Sister.

        Like

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