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The Disappearing Dictionary:

a Treasury of Lost English Dialect Words

by David Crystal

(London Times)

Arguments over English usage are never-ending and often furious. It's a subject many people (including me) feel strongly about. And in any debate I listen to, let alone take part in, I expect at some point to hear the benighted phrase 'proper English'.

David Crystal is a linguist who has done much to explain, in many accessible books, why that's a misnomer. There is no such thing as proper English: there are different varieties of English, all of which are grammatically complex and have a full range of expressiveness. The form of English used in The Times, for example, is not 'proper English' but a dialect of English. It so happens that the dialect I use for publication is a peculiarly influential one (Standard English) but that doesn’t make it correct whereas other dialects are wrong or sub-standard.

That's an argument well-known to scholarly linguists - and, as far as I know, it's accepted by every linguist I've ever met. Yet it has little sway in popular discussion about language. This is where Crystal’s latest book, The Disappearing Dictionary, is so valuable. Among the many variants of English are the dialects of these islands. By dialect, I don't mean simply a range of accents - of pronouncing words and phrases with a distinctive regional tone. A dialect has its own grammatical structure and vocabulary. In this book, Crystal records several hundred historical terms distinctive to dialects of these islands.

It makes for a deceptively engaging read. The dictionary is meant to be browsed, and it includes many terms that immediately attract the reader for their utility and evocativeness. How about shobble (a Worcestershire verb meaning 'to do odd jobs')? Or, brilliantly, jawbation - a noun known to many counties from the south coast as far as Yorkshire meaning 'a long and tedious harangue'? If I were a newly elected MP, I’d be sure to slip that one into my maiden speech as a warning to my fellow parliamentarians.

Some terms are straightforwardly logical, such as the Hertfordshire verb bluify (meaning 'to become blue', as if you couldn’t guess). Others are so perfect that you wonder how Standard English manages without them, such as stog (a southern verb meaning 'to stick fast in the mud'). And some are marvels of ingenuity, such as miscomfrumple (a Northamptonshire verb meaning 'to rumple or crease').

I say the book is deceptively engaging because it might be misinterpreted as a celebration of quaintness, like a gift shop offering a sanitised version of past times. Instead it’s a work of scholarship on a subject that is not often rehearsed in those public debates about usage. Crystal’s volume is not only a record but an argument. He maintains, entirely correctly, that the study of dialect is an issue of intrinsic importance. His model for this is a remarkable lexicographer called Joseph Wright, whose six-volume English Dialect Dictionary (published between 1898 and 1905) furnishes the raw material of this book.

Wright possessed a remorselessly inquiring mind. He went from a boyhood of penury and illiteracy to become an Oxford academic and one of the great philologists of the age. Had this remarkable man not been driven to research and investigate the tongues of these islands, much linguistic history would have been lost.

Crystal is intent on preserving this linguistic inheritance and making it better known. His abbreviated dictionary is a light and lovely volume. Yet most important, it reminds us that linguistic complexity and richness are found in many forms, if we only divert our gaze across regions and ages rather than be absorbed in ourselves.

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Queechy: sickly, ailing, feeble. From Leicestershire, Somerset, Staffs and Warwickshire

Shupernacular: superior, excellent, from Shropshire

Voxy: a Devonian word for deceptive, uncertain weather: 'Tis a voxy day tho'

Briss: dust and fluff that accumulates behind furniture, Devon and Somerset

Bange: fine rain, drizzle: 'Tis a bangy morning', from Hertfordshire, Essex and East Anglia

Peedle: to look or creep slyly about. Cumberland, Lancs and Yorkshire

Tiff-taffle: to talk in a bantering fashion, Notts

Timtoodle: a stupid, silly fellow, Cornwall

Licksome: pleasant, agreeable, amiable. Cheshire, Derbyshire

Linnard: the last to finish a meal. Somerset

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