Martin Luther King Jr. and Wyatt Walker were under no illusions that they could fight racism the conventional way. They could not defeat Bull Connor at the polls, or in the streets, or in the court of law…. What they could do, though, was play Brer Rabbit and try to get Connor to throw them in the briar patch.” —From David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book on various “underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants”
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A writer obsessed with words is nothing new, but Mark Forsyth, blogger at Inky Fool and author of the bestselling The Etymologicon, has gone a step further with his latest book, The Horologicon (due Nov. 1). The book not only explores the etymology of obsolete words, it orders them according to the time of day that someone might want to lob them into conversation. Here, the British wordsmith shares a few of his favorites.
Snollygoster is a 19th-century American word meaning “a dishonest or corrupt politician.” The only reason I can think of for such a delicious word dying out is that all politicians are now honest.
(Time of day: 6 a.m.—morning paper)
Ultracrepidarian means “prone to giving your opinion on a subject you know nothing about.” What makes this word so useful is that nobody knows what it means. So you can tell somebody that they are ultracrepidarian and they won’t be offended. In fact, they’ll probably thank you.
(10 A.m.—morning meeting)
Wamblecropt means “to be overcome with indigestion.” Once upon a time you could have a touch of the wambles, meaning that your stomach wasn’t feeling quite right. It was wambling. Wamblecropt began life in England but was last recorded in rural America in the 19th century.
Gongoozle can be found deep in the Oxford English Dictionary. It means “to stare idly at a canal or watercourse and do nothing.” I found it funny that there had ever been a single word for such a strange activity, but since then I’ve realized that I like to gongoozle myself. I’ve been doing it for years.
(2 p.m.—middle of work day)
Sprunt is an old Scots word meaning “to chase girls around among the haystacks after dark.” I would love to have lived in a time and a place where that was such a common activity that they needed a single syllable word for it.
(10 p.m.—night out)