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A new book published this month, with the slightly jejune title, How To Sound Really Clever, lists nearly a thousand words which may thrill and be used to assert oneself. It’s the lexicographer’s How to Win Friends.

For example, acedia, which VS Naipaul gave a good airing in The Enigma of Arrival to describe his landlord’s behavior, means unaccountable melancholia. Another from the A-list is anhedonic, of which the noun, anhedonia, was the working title for a famous Woody Allen film better known as Annie Hall. If it had been spelt as Anne Hedonia, it might have been interpreted as a biography of a woman from central Europe. It means unable to feel pleasure or happiness.

In economics there is a hedonic index to measure the evolution of objects and comparative prices. An anhendonic index may, presumably, measure the disutility or diminution of the same object in its capacity to deliver a benefit to the consumer. Mmm…maybe that is worth looking into.

Words alone are a link, to a place and a time. Technology gives and takes so many. iPod is not very old and it may die out before the end of this century as the technology itself is already out of date. But try saying the words that a carpenter used in the mid 17th century to someone today – wimble, smothen plane, addes (Adze) are just three and they signify very little to a non-specialist. There is a sound, a resonance to them and others which comes from another era.

There are many thousands of lost words, such as the choice in the title to this piece. Here is a selection: tortiloquy – crooked speech; stibogram – a graphic record of footprints such as a detective might use; ipsographic – self-recording as in taking a ‘selfie’ for social media; ponask – to cook game by splitting it and roasting on a spit and this one died out just 50 years ago, and finally, diffibulate – to unbutton or unbuckle.

They are funny, fusty, and slightly pompous and if anyone used them now they would be doing so for comic effect. Are they essentially the same as acedia or anhedonia, which by being published in a book suggest they are words in need of serious marketing to acquire more users. No speakers and words die. It may be that acedia will no longer be used and this book will be its last curtain call. I hope not. Words give nuance and choice and precision in expression. In English we tend to lose the differences in noun and verb forms because it doesn’t matter apparently as no one really cares too much either way, its only words after all. To add insult illiterate marketing copy confuses words and meaning frequently and then acts as a transmitter of words for further replication.

Richard Dawkins offers a detour on this form in The Selfish Gene where he talks about how “For the sake” was added to Auld Lang Syne because of the sound of the syllables and how easy it was to speak. This error was then replicated on and on even though it was wrong.

It’s fairly predictable that anyone buying this book of rare and forgotten words and trying them out on a crowd, in business or socially, will not be met with praise and admiration but a stony silence. The listeners will mutter words of brutal candor to themselves in silent reply; words that were probably first uttered in a German forest in the Dark Ages.

Guy Cranswick
18th November 2013