An ABC of Lost Words of the English Language - Help For Writers (2023)

From Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon

There are many words within the English language that have fallen out of use over time. Author and blogger Mark Forsyth explores such words in the very humorous and insightful ‘The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language’.


Mark’s definition: The desire, the morbid longing, to devour extraordinary substances commonly regarded as inedible, innutritious, or even hurtful.
Online definition: A desire for unusual or abnormal foods.

Known as a ‘rare’ word that is linked to medical and pathological definitions, it is thought that allotriophagy derives from Ancient Greek, but no exact date can be found. The prefix ‘allo’ is thought to mean ‘different’ and the prefix ‘allotrio’ is thought to mean ‘strange or foreign’. While the suffix ‘phagy’ is thought to derive from ‘phageîn’ meaning ‘to eat’.

Bumfodder (sometimes written as Bum Fodder)

Mark’s definition: Toilet roll or a derogatory term for large, but necessary, amounts of paperwork.
Online definition: Toilet paper or other material of the same use. Later (1650s) this became a term for a newspaper or magazine. Has also been used to mean bureaucratic or officious documents.


Mark’s definition: Running around in circles
Online definition: Causing something to move in a circular motion. Rolling, turning or travelling about.

There also quite a few instances of ‘circumgyrate’ used to mean ‘to make circuits’ and ‘circumgyrating’ meaning to be a present participle in making circuits but I imagine that this meaning came later.


Mark’s definition: The practise of staying awake forever, ready to attack.
Online definition: A strict or domineering manner.

Although, interestingly ‘a strict or domineering manner’ was the most found definition, also found was ‘unremitting watchfulness’ and ‘watchful guardianship’ which are obviously more similar to Mark’s definition.


Mark’s definition: Crazed desire for freedom
Online definition: A manic yearning for freedom.

Eleutheromania comes from the Ancient Greek word ‘eleutheria’ (simply meaning liberty or freedom) and the suffix ‘mania’ (meaning mental illness marked by periods of great excitement or euphoria, delusions and overactivity’). It has been used in both in a medical context (John G Robertson) as an ‘irrational disorder’ however it has also been used in the context of usual human emotional responses such as a mere passion for liberty.


Mark’s definition: Half finished, “half arsed”.
Online definition: No definite online definition appears however it appears as meaning “neither well or unwell” on many websites including/ is believed by many to mean.

There is no one definition online but if we use these two definitions it seems that it means something like ‘neither here nor there’, ‘middle of the road’; something that it neither one extreme or the other but somewhere in the middle. Whether this is specific to health or not we can’t be sure but it seems that most people think of it in that way.


Mark’s definition: To eat greedily.
Online definition: To eat greedily or voraciously; gormandize.

Guttle is a rare word that has been in use since about 1650. It is believed to come from ‘gut’ and was possibly influenced by ‘guzzle’, a word with the same meaning that comes from the late 1500s and is still used to this day.

Hum-Durgeon (Sometimes written as humdurgeon, hum durgeon or humdudgeon)

Mark’s definition: An imaginary illness.
Online definition: An imaginary illness.

I only found one definition for this and it’s the same as Mark used in his book, specifically; “An imaginary illness. He has got the humdurgeon, the thickest part of his thigh is nearest his arse; i.e. nothing ails him except low spirits”. This definition was originally taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose.

In the few times that this word has sometimes been used it is usually referring to a ‘depressed state’ but is often referred to as ‘imaginary’ which probably “reflects the view of earlier generations about mental illness”.


Mark’s definition: You disgust yourself.
Online definition: Repulsive by itself; as, the idiorepulsive power of heat.

From the prefix ‘idio’ meaning ‘personal or own’ and repulsive. It is cited in ‘Satisdiction: One Man’s Journey Into All The Words He’ll Ever Need’ by Ammon Shea.


Mark’s definition: Drunk.
Online definition: Alcohol intoxicated.

Found in the Dictionary of American Slang.


Mark’s definition: To “squander your money on the love of beautiful boys”.
Online definition: Not found online.

According to mark, an ancient Greek word but not found elsewhere.


Mark’s definition: Spend time aimlessly
Online definition: Spend time aimlessly. Dawdle, dally.

There are some discrepancies for when this word was first used but it is thought to be from the mid 19th century. Some sources say with the meaning of ‘dawdle’ and /dally’ came from 1862 but later it came to mean ‘to kiss and caress’ (another meaning of ‘dally’) in 1868 which is more closely linked to the believed etymology of the word; ‘lolly’ meaning ‘tongue’ and ‘gag’ meaning ‘trick’.


Mark’s definition: Two people looking at each other hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do.
Online definition: A look between two people in love that expresses unspoken but mutual desire. Looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do.

Sometimes mamihlapinatapai is defined in reference to romantic desire, but as Mark discusses, it could also be used to describe as “two people stand at a doorway each gesturing ‘After you’” or “two people sitting in a dull waiting room both hope the other will start a conversation”.

However, as Mark states in The Horologicon, mamihlapinatapai is a “rather controversial word”. Experts tend to believe that though the word could exist theoretically, there is no evidence to suggest that it did.


Mark’s definition: Rest granted to the farm labourers of Yorkshire after a particularly laborious lunch.
Online definition: No online result. However, found in ‘I Never Knew There Was a Word For It’ by Adam Jacot Boinod meaning the labourer’s resting time after dinner.

According to online results ‘nooning’ means a rest or meal at midday so may be a shortened version of nooningscaup. ‘Nooning’ comes from early 16th century so ‘nooningscaup’ may be even older, or they may have been used interchangeably. However, I couldn’t find any definition for ‘scaup’ alone (apart from a breed of duck).


Mark’s definition: Looking for love, ‘wandering around with vague hopes of love’.
Online definition: No result found. A definition was found for ‘ogopogo’ meaning an aquatic monster said to live in Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, Canada.. which is pretty specific. Although likening the ‘vague hopes of love’ to a monster is quite poetic when you think about it. Just me? Okay.


Mark’s definition: Hungover.
Online definition: Intoxicated, astonied, bedunced, at his wits end.

Mark’s “It conveys a hangover without ever having to admit you’ve been drinking” has been quoted a lot and used as a definition.


Mark’s definition: To make money in any way that you can.
Online definition: To make money in any way possible.

I only found one actual definition for this word but there are a few discussions of it online.
As Mark discusses it was used by Sir Thomas Urquhart in 1652: “Those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets” but I haven’t found it used anywhere else.


Mark’s definition: The process (almost like meditation) in which you sit in a darkened room, closing you eyes and just sit, usually after a meal.
Online definition: To relax after a heavy meal.

There are a few different definitions for ‘rizzle’ for example, ‘to roast imperfectly’ and ‘to creep’.
But with the ‘relaxing’ definition, as discussed by Mark, it appears to come from late 19th century America but was very short lived. It can be found within medical journals and an American medical bulletin in 1890: “Do you rizzle every day? Do you know how to rizzle? On of the swell doctors in town says that it is the most wonderful aid to perfect health…”.


Mark’s definition: a hot day (and expected thunderstorms).
Online definition: No online result. But a few people online have used it to mean ‘clouds that look thundery’ and ‘that a thunderstorm is on the way’.


Mark’s definition: An effeminate looking man
Online definition: An effeminate looking man

Again, this definition was also found from the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose which could have well been where Mark found it.


Mark’s definition: Excessively fond of one’s wife.
Online definition: Having or showing a great or excessive fondness for one’s wife.

Thought to originate from the late 16th century, cited in some places as 1598 specifically.


Mark’s definition: Specifically a ‘night foundered vicambulist’ means a ‘street-walker who has got lost in the darkness’. It doesn’t specify if, in this case, ‘street walker’ means ‘prostitute’ or just somebody that walk around the street as the online definition is: someone who walks around in the streets.

Wamblecropt (sometimes written as wamble-cropped or womblecropped) –
Mark’s definition: Queasy/nauseous.
Online definition: Found online mainly as ‘wamble-cropped’ meaning having a rumbling stomach, sickly. Sick at the stomach, crestfallen, dejected.

As discussed by Mark, the OED defines ‘wamble’ as a “rolling or uneasiness of the stomach” and wamblecropt as being “afflicted with and incapacitated by such wambling”. The word was first cited in 1616 but isn’t used again until 1798 in America. After this point it was usually used as a joke. ‘Wambling’ alone was used frequently in Britain until the late 19th century.


Mark’s definition: Yellow-toothed.
Online definition: Not found online but has been used to mean having yellow teeth by a couple of people.


Mark’s definition: Thieves slang for milk.
Online definition: Milk.

Again, can be found within the Dictionary of a Vulgar Tongue but also in the OED. The line “Here’s Pannum and Lap, and good Poplars ofYarrum, / To fill up the Crib, and to comfort the Quarron” was used in Richard Brome’s A Joviall Crew: or, the Merry Beggars, first performed in 1641.


Mark’s definition: The cardboard slip around a coffee cup that keeps you from burning your fingers.
Online definition: A holder, usually of ornamental metal, for a coffee cup without a handle

Interestingly Zarf translates to ‘envelope’ from Turkish (originally from Arabic meaning ‘container’ and ‘envelope’) and it was in Turkey (around the 13th century) that coffee became popular. There was a complex ritual surrounding the serving of coffee in Turkey; the coffee was served in cups without handles which were placed in these holders called ‘zarf’.

If you’re interested in language and etymology, I would very much recommend Mark Forsyth’s ‘The Horologicon’ (along with his other books: ‘‘The Etymologicon’ and ‘The Elements of Eloquence’). ‘The Horologicon’ can be bought here.

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