Fossils exist in language as well as in nature

Fossils exist in language as well as in nature

While living in North Yorkshire years ago I heard this apocryphal story.

The railway company put up a sign for motorists at a level crossing: “Please wait while the red lights are flashing”. A few days later the sign was hastily taken down.

Why? Because in the old dialect of that county while translates as until. You can imagine the implications at a level crossing.

This is not as crazy as its sounds because while is related to words that meant “a point in time” in Old English, Norse and other Germanic languages. So perhaps the Yorkshire sense of while is a survival from the days when Vikings ruled the north of England.

Fortunately for everyone’s safety and sanity, it is rare in standard English for words to be used as antonyms of their usual meanings. However, it is surprisingly common for the meaning of English words to alter quite a lot over a century or more, particularly when they are given a regular airing in books and the other written media.

This struck me forcibly when I read The Adventures of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett. It was published in 1748, so you would expect some of the language to seem old fashioned, but I was surprised how many familiar words were used by Smollett in ways that were unfamiliar to me.

Verbs and adjectives seemed particularly prone to change.  I’ll assume you know the modern meanings of the following verbs (Smollett’s usage is in parenthesis): to post (to travel with haste); to recruit (to restore); to amuse (to deceive or mislead); to discover (to uncover). Adjectives included: languid (insubstantial or slight); circumstantial (detailed); and ravished (delighted). Relatively few nouns were different, but I was struck by the use of adventure in the sense of a business venture or interest.

You might argue that 1748 was a long time ago, so some of Smollet’s language is bound to strike us a strange. However, he was a favourite author of, and influence on, the young Charles Dickens, whose literary output became a cornerstone of modern English, so the mid-18th century is not as remote as seems. Our 21st century written English is directly connected to the fictional world of Roderick Random.

It follows that we should not be surprised by the occasional verbal oddity, particularly in regional dialects. Often these are fossils of a pre-industrial age that have avoided being ground into dust by the slow mill of too frequent exposure in print. We should treasure and preserve them – while (in the modern sense) taking care not to jeopardise public safety when writing them down.

Article date

February 2nd, 2015

Richard Cheeseman

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