We hear a lot about the death of language. Whether it’s the death of the author, the novel, the letter – every literary item imaginable has, it seems, been eulogised. Michael Quinion’s Gallimaufry is a delightful book that trawls through the obituaries of the many such fallen soldiers: words that have sailed off into the ether.
A word-nut will have lots of fun with this book. Quinion is an engaged guide, and uses a light writing style, which is a blessing when he navigates the linguistic and historical origins of the words he studies. The title word, gallimaufry, which now means a ‘hodgepodge’, comes from old French. It originally meant a stew or sauce, and it’s still used today, though perhaps only in very enlightened (or pretentious) corners of the English-speaking world. Quinion has divided his enquiry into five thematic parts. The first deals with food and drink, and is of course my favourite; the second with health and medicine; the third, entertainment and leisure; the fourth, transport and fashion; and the fifth, names, employment and communications. Those of you with refined palates will relish the knowledge that the word bottarga (or cured fish roe) – as we know it in Australia – came from the Arabic butarkha originally. There are lots of wonderful little slices through history like this that make you feel like you’re lifting up a magic curtain into the past.
Wonderfully, the thematic division of the book allows you to discover English-speaking habits and cultures that are long fallen by the wayside. Quinion fossicks around in the verbal dirt for things I now kind of regret finding out. Harry Potter fans will know that a bezoar is a ‘concretion of hair or vegetable fibre that forms naturally in the stomachs of ruminant animals’, used once upon a time as an antidote to poison. Men awaiting the barber’s attention used to enjoy the music of a cittern. Also, find out what Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts were about wearing a wig! However, I just couldn’t be enthralled by discovering that the zingerilla and the bransle were fancy lady-and-gentleman dances. Perhaps my fellow Jane Austen readers would beg to disagree.
Despite the subject matter of Gallimaufry being predominantly old and now obscure words, Quinion is certainly no obscurant. There are lots of treasures to be had here for readers of British historical fiction, and even those who once pondered why the Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Dolly Varden’ cake was termed as such. (The Dolly Varden was a rakishly side-slung hat. Though what connection a hat has to a cake with a doll stuck in it, I’ll never have the capacity to fathom.) If you like odd language trivia and showing off your vocabularistic prowess, you will like this book, as it will enable you to say things like: ‘Did you know that “fig” used to mean “banana” in the West Indies at one stage?’ NO, I DIDN’T. And now I do.
NB. I work at Oxford University Press.