Several weeks back I delved into ten of the twenty words of which the ‘younger generation’ (now, there’s a phrase nobody uses anymore) were revealed by survey to have little ken. To recap, ‘in no particular order’, those words were sozzled, bounder, cad, trollop, tosh, wally, balderdash, nincompoop, brill and randy.
I can report in a Muppet newsflash from the language front (i.e. peeps on Twitter) that a) the Queen Mother is reputed to have said of the Conservative politician and ‘personality’ Lord Boothby that he was ‘a bounder but not a cad’, a distinction which is too subtle for me to fathom; and b) that ‘brill’ did not, as I had thought, die an undignified death circa 1995 but still lives on in the speech of ‘the younger generation’ – well, one of them, anyway, and a thespian, to boot.
This week I attempted but failed to be briefer about the remaining ten. Two are rather ancient (betrothed, henceforth); two are very much of their – recent – historical period (disco, boogie); the remainder sound rather British and somewhat informal (in alpha order, bonk, kerfuffle, lush, minted, swot, yonks).
This time round, where possible, I’m using the Merriam-Webster (M-W) online dictionary for the links to headwords and definitions
henceforth – ‘from this point on’
The M-W site lists this as in the top 2 per cent of lookups. At first, I wondered why, but then thought there are at least two reasons. For a start, what M-W doesn’t note is that this word is decidedly formal. (The Collins Cobuild dictionary, which is aimed at learners of English, labels it as such.)
I mean, can you imagine saying it?
No, I thought not.
‘Ironically’, you say?
Ok, at a pinch.
It’s a word that belongs to the written register – and even then positively oozes tints of officialese. It’s old, for sure. M-W dates it to the fourteenth century, which the OED [December 2019 entry] confirms (c.1350). A second reason for its being looked up is that it consists of two parts neither of which is used much in current speech: hence (‘from here’) and forth (‘out and away’ or ‘from now’), which are both literary/formal/archaic.
Apart from those reasons for henceforth’s ‘popularity’, a couple of other things strike me as worth commenting on. First, you might well find it in the phrase ‘from henceforth’, which, technically, is a sort of tautology: ‘from’ is already in the meaning. As the OED notes: ‘Uses of henceforth following a redundant from are more common in the Middle English period than uses without from. Uses without from (see sense 1) are now more common.’
Second, it’s a combination of forms (in this case adverb + adverb) that seems to me to hark back to the Germanic roots of English. I’m trying to learn Danish and it appears to have lots of words like this: herovre/derovre (‘over here/there’), herfra/derfra (‘hence/thence, from here/there’).
betrothed – M-W gives it two meanings, one for the adjective and one for the noun,
‘engaged to be married’ (1557) and
‘the person to whom someone is engaged to be married’ (1594).
The adjective often goes with ‘couple’:
The betrothed couples are surprised to find that they are sharing their marriage with a funeral.
The noun collocates with possessives, e.g., his, her, my, Gordon’s, etc:
Her faith in her betrothed had been restored.
The genre in which the word shows up more than any other in my corpus is fiction.
In keeping with the archaic flavour of the noun my etc. betrothed, the two examples given in M-W are from George Eliot and Trollope. The two modern examples from the internet that M-W supplies are both for the adjective. The noun nowadays would, surely, be mostly replaced by ‘fiancée’ or even ‘partner’.
Betrothed is an adjectival use of the participle of the verb to betroth, ‘promise to marry’ or ‘to give in marriage’. An example in the corpus I consulted glosses it with ‘engaged’:
In earlier times, people were betrothed (became engaged) as children.
Like henceforth, the word is often looked up: according to M-W it’s in the top 3 per cent of words consulted on their site. Why is that? Well, I suppose, out of context, even if you break it down into its constituents be + troth, you are still not going to get at the meaning.
The verb is from Middle English bitreuðien, which combines the once very productive prefix be- (before, becalm, befuddle, beguile, bejewelled and a very long etc.) with treuðe, treowðe, ‘truth’. The second element was later assimilated to the word ‘troth’, which was originally a variant spelling of ‘truth’ but then narrowed to mean ‘one’s solemn promise or undertaking to do something’. It lingers on in the phrase ‘to pledge or plight one’s troth’:
People are always plighting their troth to and/or screwing their cousins in Hardy and Austen.
as an OED citation has it.
People can plight their troth metaphorically:
Another reason for plighting your troth to a party that will not be led by a prime minister.
and similarly, but rather tongue in cheek:
…a sensible survival instinct that has not always been visible since Cameron and Clegg first plighted their troth in the No 10 rose garden in May 2010.
(A dig at the Conservative/Liberal Democrat pact to form the UK government in 2010,)
Similarly to ‘to plight one’s troth’, people can be betrothed to a cause or an idea:
Are Nicola Sturgeon and the majority within her party really so betrothed to the idea of the UK being part of the European Union that…
‘wedded’ is probably more commonly used in this context.
Finally, how to pronounce it?
There are two parts to this question. First, does the –troth part sound like loathe or like loth? Is it /bɪˈtrəʊð/ or /bɪˈtrəʊθ/? Collins goes with the first alone, while Oxford Online (for British English) allows both. Second, the ‘o’ sound. M-W online give the voiced version first (like loathe) but thereafter has a version with short ‘o’ sound (like moth) and the voiceless ‘th’. Oxford Online for American English does likewise.
Now on to two words redolent (not to say reeking) of their era.
disco – has two M-W meanings as a noun:
1: a nightclub for dancing to live and recorded music.
2: popular dance music characterised by hypnotic rhythm, repetitive lyrics, and electronically produced sounds.
The first meaning dates to 1957, the second to 1976. But the real heyday of the word must have been the 1970s. Think Saturday Night Fever. Even better, think the parody dance sequence in Airplane. Monday nights in 1976 and 1977 for me were at Bang on Charing Cross Road, which truly lived up to the OED description of a disco as ‘A nightclub or similar venue at which recorded music is played (usually by a DJ) for dancing, typically having a powerful sound system, a dance floor, and elaborate lighting effects.’
The lighting effects were bedazzlingly spectacular, co-ordinated as they were by a lighting engineer, and the music – the verrrrrrrrrry latest from Stateside – had that hypnotic beat that physically propelled you onto the dancefloor. One such mesmerising track was A Taste of Honey’s ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ (1978) , which we’ll come onto under the next word, boogie.
Meanwhile, it’s all too easy to forget that disco is a truncated version of a borrowed word, French discothèque. The original accent dropped off somewhere mid-Atlantic. In the meaning ‘nightclub for dancing …’ discotheque is first attested in writing (1960), which is later than disco. How can that be? Well, there was a specific venue called Discotheque mentioned in the entertainment magazine Billboard as far back as 1952. So the word must have been prominent enough in the ether for it to be shortened to disco by 1957.
I wonder if one of the reasons for the shorter form – apart from the widespread tendency to shorten polysyllabic words in English such as pram, info, admin, etc. – was the spelling. The –thèque suffix could be a bit of a bugger if you didn’t know French: discoteck would spell it as it sounds. That –thèque, incidentally,was lopped off French bibliothèque ‘library’ and shunted onto disco to create the original meaning of discothèque, ‘a record library’ (1929).
The OED archly labels the place meaning ‘now somewhat dated’. Mind you, say you were organising a wedding with dancing afterwards with a DJ – wouldn’t that be a disco? At least in my (rather retro) neck of the woods, googling ‘disco’ retrieves several outfits who are still in business and unashamed to style themselves ‘mobile discos’. That’s right: the plural is –os, not –oes.
boogie – The word has a long and complex history which lack of space prevents me from expatiating on. Suffice it to say that as a noun it was part of African-American slangy language from 1929 onwards, and before it was verbed was best known outside A-A circles as a bluesy style of piano-playing, also known as boogie-woogie. The verb is first attested in writing and in the meaning ‘to dance’ from as long ago as 1944, in the US:
Now, Homey, forget your mama, forget your papa too; And ‘boogie’ with real feeling ‘in a room where lights are blue’.
D. Burley, Original Handbook of Harlem Jive, 36; 1944
The most recent citation from the OED updated entry [September 2018] is from 2012, in a context which might suggest nostalgia. As I suggested earlier, its heyday was definitely in the last century and I suspect it had withered from most people’s lips well before 2012.
bonk – The relevant meaning here is ‘to have sexual intercourse with’. M-W notes it as ‘chiefly British and informal’, and it is only the third meaning shown.
Bonk the verb first came into the world – in print, at least – in 1929 as a ‘conversion’ of the British interjection of the same year, which is clearly onomatopoeic. As the OED comprehensively notes ‘Representing an abrupt, typically hollow-sounding, heavy thumping noise, as of a blow, or one hard or unyielding object striking another.’ The verb in this sense is ‘to strike something hard or unyielding’ and the second OED citation shows a writer trying to convey a sequence of disparate noises:
The carrier men…bonked and rattled and squerked the package through the almost too small doorway and set it down with a thump.
N. Hunter, Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt i. 13, 1937
The sexual meaning is first recorded from 1975. Its achievement, at least in Britain, was to give people a word they could use without stammering or blushing to describe an act which theretofore could only be described by euphemism, coarse slang or the starchy language of medicine. Here instead was a ‘fun’ word: short, somewhat childish yet sooo satisfying to say. It had a sort of ‘naughty but nice’ feel, risqué, but then again, not really. And it seemed a lot less crude and slangy than s**g. Dot Wordsworth waxes lyrical about it while surprised how many of the surveyed respondents appeared not to know it (37%).
In the US, so the OED informs me, boink is the usual form, though it lagged a decade behind bonk in acquiring gonads. As for the parallelism between the sexual act and violent or confused movement, just think grind, hump, tumble, s**g, sc**w, shaft and so forth.
There’s another meaning to bonk, which is to hit that brick wall of exhaustion during intense sport cycling or marathoning, for instance. Whether it can be said with a straight face I have no idea.
To its credit, bonk gave birth to the term bonkbuster, now sadly fallen from favour. It means a novel with frequent, explicit sexual encounters. In the UK Jilly Cooper was once widely acknowledged as the queen thereof and in the States it was Jackie Collins. I make no apologies for quoting at length the following magnificent extract from The Independent:
…Collins still has what it takes to be nasty, filthy and disgusting. Turn to the first page of Poor Little Bitch Girl and you find that age has not mellowed nor sanitised her prose: ‘Belle Svetlana surveyed her nude image in a full-length mirror, readying herself for a $30,000-an-hour sexual encounter with the 15 -year-old son of an Arab oil tycoon.’ Whether you read the book with a straight face or enjoy its tongue-in-cheek subtext, Collins remains mistress of her own genre of Hollywood bonkbuster-cum-crime thriller.
kerfuffle – One of the citations M-W give at the start of their entry is from J.K. Rowling. Which might explain why a mere 20 per cent of eighteen- to thirty-year-olds professed ignorance of it, unlike, say, sozzled, which scored twice as high (40%), or low, depending on how you view limited vocabulary. I’m pretty sure this must be a word I learned growing up, i.e. en famille, rather than from reading. As M-W explain, the word is not that old, 1908 according to them, although the (unrevised) OED entry makes it much later at 1946. Whatever. The fact is that kerfuffle is a regularised spelling of a much earlier Scots noun generally spelled curfuffle (1813) meaning ‘flurry, agitation’. Curfuffle the noun is in turn a nominalisation of the verb to curfuffle, which goes all the way back to the sixteenth century and means to disorder or ruffle something The OED [originally 1893] entry has a nice example:
‘His ruffe curfufled about his craig’.
[His ruff all crumpled around his neck]
R. Sempill Bp. of St. Androis in Ballates (1872) 215, 1583
And curfuffle the verb, in turn, comes from combining an earlier Scottish to fuffle, similar in meaning to curfuffle, with, possibly, a Gaelic word car, meaning ‘to turn, to twist’.
lush – This link is to Collins dictionary because Merriam-Webster does not include the relevant meanings, which are clearly British. And those meanings are a) ‘sexually desirable or attractive’ and, by extension of that, b) ‘very good or impressive’.
I couldn’t say when this was at its zenith. I remember being struck about twenty years ago by people younger than me using it, and I may have used it myself at that time. The word lush itself goes as far back as c.1440 when it meant merely ‘lax’ or ‘flaccid’. Only in the nineteenth century did it acquire the meaning ‘succulent and luxuriant’ of vegetation. Shakespeare used it in The Tempest: How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green! (ii. i. 57). And, so I glean from the OED, that use gained traction – among poets to begin with – because of an emendation to the text of The Tempest by the first serious Shakespearean editor, Lewis Theobald (1688–1744), who replaced luscious below with lush for the sake of metre. (As the line stands, it has 11 syllables.)
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses, and with eglantine.
The OED [1989 entry] assigns the ‘sexually attractive’ meaning to 1891, in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles, under a general category meaning ‘luxurious’:
The æsthetic, sensuous, pagan pleasure in natural life and lush womanhood.
Tess II. xxv. 55
The next citation the OED lists is from Punch in 1939:
Business-men from neutral countries should be met with red-carpeted gangways and military bands, and passed in lush motor-cars from one feast to the next.
Punch 8 Nov. 517/1
In an update to that entry [March 2007] lush is ascribed the ‘slang’ and ‘chiefly British’ meaning of generically ‘excellent’ or ‘great’. Surprisingly (to me) it goes back to 1928 and was apparently influenced by comparison with luscious.
It was used (1953) in the BBC radio show Much Binding in the Marsh (1944–1954) which starred, among others, Kenneth Horne of later Round the Horne fame, as quoted in Partridge’s slang dictionary:
1246/2 ‘Would you like to hear it?’ ‘Oh rather! That would be absolutely lush.’
K. Horne & R. Murdoch Much Binding in Marsh in New Partridge Dict. Slang (2006) II.
For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with this peculiarly British and now rather dated expression of emphatic agreement, rather in the quotation above would have been said with a long second syllable /ˈrɑːˈðɜː/ or /ˌrɑːˈðəː/.
minted – Again, we have to refer to a British dictionary for this British slang term meaning ‘wealthy, well-off’. Now, it really is pretty recent as slang goes, namely, 1995. The meaning must have been influenced by the phrases ‘to make a mint’ and ‘to be worth a mint’, mint in both cases referring to where coins are created; so someone who is well off might be metaphorically thought of as having minted their own wealth. It must still be current because only 15 per cent of respondents failed to recognise it.
swot, swat – Yet again, unknown to M-W because British, hence the link here to Collins. Thinking about it, I suppose it does have a rather antique patina, perhaps more as the noun insult against someone than as the verb, to swot up on something. In origin it’s a nineteenth-century term and a dialect variant of sweat. According to the OED, it was a Scot at the military college Sandhurst who first used it, meaning mathematics, and people adept at that were called ‘good swots’. By natural extension swot then came to mean someone considered more than usually studious, hence tending to be ridiculed by school contemporaries. It’s been suggested that a swot would tend to be reticent or secretive about their swotting and also more likely to be a woman than a man. And Boris Johnson gave the term some prominence by calling David Cameron a ‘girly swot’, which led to a Twitter hashtag #girlyswot and women labelling themselves as such and proud to be so.
Since school is the environment where the accusation of being overstudious is most likely to be levelled, and since teenage slang changes very fast, it is no surprise that other insults have been and gone over the years. I’m told by a slangographer that currently ‘bash’ is in vogue, while keener (which the OED records as Canadian and Bristolian, a curious combination, first cited 1973) has been in fashion. By a simple twist of fate, sweat is also apparently a current insult, harking back to the origins of swot. And then, so I’m told, there’s square, vintage circa 1990. All I can say is swot is an insult I don’t remember from school because we were all expected to study and therefore swot would, if anything, be praise not criticism.
yonks – another one that is decidedly non-American. It can be used in various structures with negatives, such as not… for yonks, not…in yonks, as in ‘There’ll be people you haven’t seen for yonks’; in phrases such as it’s been yonks since, yonks ago; and you can even say that something will take yonks. But for yonks predominates.
Dictionaries label it British, but my corpus shows it’s widely used in other Englishes outside North America, and especially in Australia.
As for its origins, they remain murky. It first appeared in the 1960s, and its first OED citation is this:
I rang singer Julie Driscoll… She said: ‘I haven’t heard from you for yonks.’
1968 Daily Mirror 27 Aug. 7/1
A connection with the phrase in donkey’s years has been suggested.
“Betroth.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/betroth. Accessed 16 Oct. 2020.
“betroth, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/18355. Accessed 16 October 2020.
“Betrothed.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/betrothed. Accessed 16 Oct. 2020.
“betrothed, adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/18357. Accessed 16 October 2020.
“Bonk.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bonk. Accessed 27 Oct. 2020.
“boogie, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/21407. Accessed 26 October 2020.
“Boogie.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/boogie. Accessed 27 Oct. 2020.
“curfuffle, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/46022. Accessed 27 October 2020.
“Disco.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disco. Accessed 27 Oct. 2020.
“discotheque, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/53963. Accessed 18 October 2020.
“Henceforth.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/henceforth. Accessed 16 Oct. 2020.
“henceforth, adv.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/85900. Accessed 16 October 2020.
“kerfuffle, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/103007. Accessed 27 October 2020.
“Kerfuffle.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kerfuffle. Accessed 27 Oct. 2020.
“lush, adj.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/111345. Accessed 28 October 2020.
“swot | swat, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/196060. Accessed 28 October 2020.
“Tautology.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tautology. Accessed 18 Oct. 2020.
“troth, n. and adv. (and int.).” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/206742. Accessed 16 October 2020.
“yonks, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September