Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Objectionable Words and Terms" from an 1884 cyclopedia

I purchased a copy Professor H.L. Williams' 1884 tome "The World's Cyclopedia and Library of Universal Knowledge"1 last week at The York Emporium because, while leafing through it, I saw that it was much more than just a standard single-volume encyclopedia.2

Other nifty features include four pages on the brief history and statistics of the Brooklyn Bridge3; an official list of counterfeit national notes; and a list of the insolvent, assignment, and homestead laws of the different states of the union.

But my favorite section is the one titled "Objectionable Words and Terms." It's an often-hilarious treasure trove of cranky thoughts on the state of the English language in the 1880s.

Some excerpts:
  • A'ry, na'ry -- "I haven't a'ry one," "I have na'ry one." Say "I have neither," "I haven't either," "I have none." "I haven't got na'ry red." Very low. Say "I have not one cent."
  • At loggerheads is uncouth. If roughness of expression is not desired, say "at variance," or, "on ill terms," or speak of a disagreement, a misunderstanding, or a quarrel.
  • Bad box -- "He is in a bad box" has a vulgar air. Say bad predicament, or unpleasant situation.
  • Barking up the wrong tree is an expressive and comical back-woods phrase which is not found in cultivated circles.
  • Bran new, or brand new is condemned by some writers. It seems unobjectionable as a colloquialism, but should not be used too freely where dignity if regarded.
  • By Jupiter, By Jove, By Jimini, and the like, are oaths by heathen gods.
  • Bain't, for are not; as, "They bain't at home."
  • Cave in -- Low. Say give up, submit, or yield.
  • Chicken fixins is a frivolous expression for which trifles, small matters or little things may be advantageously substituted.
  • Dicker is a colloquialism of wide currency for bargain or trade. It is not admitted in books nor favored in polite society.
  • Disremember, for forget, or do not remember; as, "I know him, but I disremember his name."
  • Furnentz, or fornenst, for opposite, or opposite to; as, "He lives furnentz the college." "I stood directly furnentz him."4
  • Fotch, for fetch, or bring; as, "Will you fotch the water?" "Fotch the trunk up the stairs."
  • Ju, for did you; as, "Ju see the elephant?" "Ju ever see the like?" "Ju know the man?"
  • Kotch'd, for catched, or caught; as, "They who set traps for others, often get kotch'd themselves."
  • Odd splutter her nails signifies God's blood and the nails which fastened Him to the cross.
  • Ouch, for oh, used interjectionally, on receiving a sudden fright or injury; as, "Ouch! the boat is sinking!"5 "Ouch! that wasp stung me in the eye!"
  • Pretty -- This word is often abused by being placed before other adjectives in the fancy that it qualifies them. It does not, but is frequently made to appear in a ridiculous combination. "This basket is pretty large," "I am pretty tired," "he is pretty awkward," are instances. Rather conveys the sense that is intended in such cases. Some who misuse pretty make matters worse by pronouncing it "pooty," or "poorty."6
  • Swap is not an elegant word. It will be well to confine it to trade in horses and jack-knives. Say exchange, barter or trade.

1. Professor Williams was also the author of "Analysis of Gems."
2. This book once belonged to "William G. Rabine."
3. The Brooklyn Bridge stuff is worth its own Papergreat post some day.
4. I believe that "ferninst" is another variant of this odd word. William Allen White wrote an interesting regional note on the word, which can be found here.
5. "Ouch! the boat is sinking!" is my new favorite phrase.
6. This rant and the rants of countless other grammarians over the decades didn't help. I'm pretty sure that we're pretty much stuck with misuses of pretty these days.


  1. Shall we add your own modifications of the English language when you were a toddler? Instead of Peek-a-boo, you'd cover your eyes and say "dis-me-appear"! And I won't mention how you destroyed the word helicopter!
    I thought that it was amusing that many of those dreadful words in the 1880s are still used today, some in the same context and others not.

  2. Good lord, the writers of this cyclopedia would have died of heart attacks if they heard people speaking today! Great list, Chris! :D