Do you have any known unknowns when it comes to words? Lucy Mangan takes on your new word submissions
Posted by Lucy Mangan @ Thursday 07 August 2014
There are, as the much-maligned Donald Rumsfeld said, known knowns. And there are known unknowns. And then there are the unknown unknowns. But when it comes to words rather than risk assessments of international warfare there are also the categories “sort of knew I didn’t know” and “sort of didn’t know I knew.” When I saw JamesWent’s submission of “baldrick” and the definition supplied – part of the leather-and-iron clapper of a bell in ye olden days – I realised that my relationship with “baldrick” fell into the latter. Although I should have realised that a life that encompasses the peak years of Blackadder could not have left me entirely ignorant of terms pertaining, I sort of didn’t know that I knew what a baldrick was until I realised that I was pretty sure it wasn’t anything to do with bells (or, beyond the screen, turnip-chomping, bath-dodging, scullery-dwelling morons). A baldric is, in fact, a kind of belt worn over the shoulder by military types to support weapons (and/or just to look dashing). So I’m recategorising it now as a “known known”, alongside “halberd” (like a long axe with a great big hook added to the non-axing edge), “trebuchet” (catapult for making people regret they’d ever started besieging each other), a handful of details about medieval sumptuary laws and other surviving relics of my university struggles with Malory, Gawain, the Green Knight and the rest of their chivalric ilk.
I thought for a moment that “flowerbeard”, contributed by Tommy might be another addition to that drawer in my mental filing cabinet – an obsolete term for a retired knight, perhaps, who spends his days on the greensward telling tall tales to small children busy wondering when someone is going to hurry up and invent pig’s bladder football – but in fact it is a term that brings us bitterly up to date. “Hipsters,” Tommy explains, “stick flowers in their hipstery beards to make a beard of flowers.” You can hear the frustrated anguish that suffuses all people when it comes to hipsters and their awful dealings. Tommy, if it helps, I would take a halberd to each and every one of them myself. These are cruel times, sir, cruel times indeed.
Let us turn to happier matters. Alisa’s “floiter” sounds like a bridge between the ages. It means “the act of a flying insect or bird hovering round an object seemingly for no reason”. Floitering with unknown intent, you might say. A recent contracted coinage but it has a nicely medieval ring to it and fills a gap surely felt since even before King Arthur was swatting away the flies buzzing around what must have been, unless the Middle Ages’ sanitary arrangements were much better than I have been led to believe, a fairly ripe-smelling set of pals at the Round Table. And in fact it was a medieval word – an alternative spelling of “flouter”, meaning flautist. Which is, I reckon, “bosting” – a Black country dialect word meaning “very good” or “excellent”, and provided for us by JamesWent again. I sort of didn’t know I knew that one either; I knew it was a dialect word, guessed the meaning but heard it in my head in a Scottish accent. My filing problems multiply. I will have to find a way to consistentionalize the system – a word contributed by Adiaba, meaning to organise and make information more accessible and meaningful. I think it’s probably too late to go and help Donald with his.
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