Toronto Star: A whiffle through some ostrobogulous lost words...
Thread poster: Roland Lelaj

Roland Lelaj
Local time: 02:16
Member (2008)
English to Albanian
+ ...
Nov 30, 2009

Hi everyone,

I thought it might be relaxing to share with you this short article published today in the "Toronto Star":

We now know that a path does lead from vetullan to ostrobogulous, because Adam Jacot de Boinod has traversed it.
The latter word, an English coinage meaning bizarre and interesting, both appears in and sums up Jacot de Boinod's latest book on language, The Wonder of Whiffling.
The former, which denotes very bushy eyebrows in Albanian, is what got the whole thing started in the early 1990s.
Jacot De Boinod was then a researcher for the BBC television show QI, short for "quite interesting." His task was to find interesting things involving the letter A.
"Rather perversely, I picked up an Albanian-into-English dictionary, which is 1,100 pages long," he says. "There were 27 words for moustache and 27 words for eyebrow."
What came to really fascinate Jacot de Boinod was the number of words in other languages for which there was no English equivalent.
To wit: majh, a Persian way of describing someone who looks beautiful after a disease. But after filling two books with such words – The Meaning of Tingo and Toujours Tingo – he decided it was time to explore the comparable quirks of his native tongue.
He searched an array of sometimes obscure dictionaries for words that struck him as "telling, thought-provoking, amusing, quirky, curious, eyebrow-raising."
Among a number of Australian descriptives for the intellectually challenged, he found "there's a kangaroo loose in the top paddock."
English, Jacot de Boinod notes, has always been obsessively adding and discarding words – or changing the meaning of existing ones, so that "racket" no longer denotes the palm of your hand, as it once did.
Which is where "whiffling" comes in. More than just a peculiar word, it amply illustrates how meaning can change radically under the onslaught of usage and dialect.

In the 17th century, a whiffling was a smoker of tobacco, and later became, at Oxford and Cambridge, the one who examined degree candidates. Elsewhere it came to mean the person who clears the way for a procession or the one with the whip in Morris dancing. The mutations continued. Whiffling could mean anything from trifling to moving erratically, from the sound of geese descending to, in Victorian slang, someone who cried out in pain.
In a sense, those meanings duly coalesced into "whiffled," or drunk, courtesy of P.G. Wodehouse, since that's what one became after too many of Jeeves' special cocktails.
This, of course, wasn't the first or last time a writer invented words. One of the most evocative is "fleshment," coined by Shakespeare to describe the flush of excitement that comes from a first success.

A sampling of other words in The Wonder of Whiffling:
Plapper, to make a soft noise with the lips.
Desiderium, a yearning for something you once had but have lost.
Stridewallops, a tall and awkward woman.
Crambazzled, prematurely aged through a dissolute, drunken life.
Fluff, to break wind silently.
Rizzle, to enjoy a short period of idleness after a meal.

Kenneth Kidd
Feature writer


Michael Barnett
Local time: 02:16
+ ...
Amusing, but sadly, Mr. Kidd is no heir to William Safire. Nov 30, 2009

Roland_Lelaj wrote:

Among a number of Australian descriptives for the intellectually challenged, he found "there's a kangaroo loose in the top paddock."

In the English medical subculture there is another descriptive for the intellectually challenged that has been around for a long time, but for obvious reasons has never diffused into common usage: "His brain consists of two neurons connected by a spirochete."

Doctors find this hilarious because it deprecates on many levels. Firstly, the spirochete is a bacterium that resembles a spindly neuron, so, one is saying that the person's brain has only three functioning units, one of which is defective. Secondly, the spirochete is the causative agent of neuro-syphilis, a disease characterized by progressive dementia.

Sorry, I had to toss that in, and also pay tribute to Mr. Safire, who died in September. His columns on the English language were uniformly delightful.



Teresa Borges
Local time: 07:16
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
QI still exists Nov 30, 2009

I do watch it regularly on BBC 1 every Friday evening. Nowadays, it is hosted by Stephen Fry. The last "episode" was about the letter G, mainly gardens and other subjects starting with the letter G. It is amusing, entertaining and... very clever! For more information


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Toronto Star: A whiffle through some ostrobogulous lost words...

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