Flapdoodler, Roorback, Yulehole.

Last year I posted about the Twitter feed of Paul Anthony Jones; now we learn his origin story and some pleasing words in his Guardian piece Flapdoodler, roorback, yulehole: Why forgotten words need rescuing from obscurity. He begins with a Christmas gift of “a hardback illustrated children’s edition of the Oxford English Dictionary” when he was around seven:

It’s fair to say I became obsessed with it. For the next day or two I sat and read it, cover to cover, as you would a novel. I wrote down all the words I came across that I didn’t know, starred and highlighted all those I liked and made lists of all those that seemed truly bizarre to me in sound, shape or spelling. Incognito. Flummery. Hullaballoo. Canoodle.

I really have no idea why I became so immediately enamoured. But looking back, there’s no denying that the gift changed my life. A love of language had been sparked and over the years and decades that followed I took that interest and ran with it. From school to university, my love of language grew until eventually I found myself on a postgraduate linguistics course, studying the history and psychology of our language in more detail than ever before. It should have been unendingly fascinating – and yet I absolutely hated it.

Towards the end of my course, it struck me that there had been something joyless about it. Everything I had loved about language – about sharing my love of language – was gone. It felt as if all the most interesting aspects of it were being kept behind glass, like rare artefacts in a museum that no one visits any more. I wanted to tell everyone about everything I was learning and discovering, but, instead, here it was, locked away in rooms and classrooms that only those who already found language interesting would ever think to enter. It was stifling and infuriating. I completed my course, told my tutor I’d had enough (an interesting conversation, to say the least), and went back to waiting tables. “The most highly qualified waiter in Newcastle,” as my mates knew me.

It was a reset moment. I realised that what I truly enjoyed – and what I believed I excelled in – was taking what I had learned and repackaging it in such a way that anyone could appreciate it, and find our language and its origins as fascinating as I do. After all, just like art and sport and music, language is one of the few things found in every culture on the planet. I resolved to tap into that shared interest and open this wonderful subject up to everyone, regardless of their background or academic experience.

So I combined my two interests and began writing about words, their origins and language just for fun. A blog, a word-of-the-day Twitter account and a series of books all followed and now, a decade later, I’ve somehow engineered for myself the perfect career for that dictionary-devouring seven-year-old. I collect and read old dictionaries, post the most interesting words I find online and write about their histories and origins.

While looking up Christmas-themed words, for instance, I rediscovered an underappreciated favourite of mine – boun. Listed in the English Dialect Dictionary (EDD), to boun is to decorate a home with evergreen branches. It’s an unexpectedly ancient word. Boun in 14th-century Middle English meant to prepare or make ready (incidentally, it’s the origin of the word “bound” as in Outward Bound). But one of its later, more specific senses was to make ready by dressing or decorating, and it is from there that this more festive application of it appeared, sometime around the 1800s.

Look ever closer into the dustier corners of the dictionary and you’ll find even more forgotten gems. The EDD in particular is a festive goldmine. The ball of snow you use to start off a snowman – by rolling a smaller snowball through a snowfield, so it gradually becomes bigger and bigger – is called a hogamadog, for instance. In the sense of something increasing in size as it spirals outwards from a central core, that’s a word that began life as a local name for the shell of a snail. […]

Spending too much money on food and drink is an act known as abligurition, according to one 18th-century dictionary – the result of which might be a feeling of barleyhood (a Tudor-period word for a hangover), or crapulence (defined by Samuel Johnson as “sickness by intemperance”). And after all that overindulgence you may well need to swadge (to relax after a large meal), and be in dire need of a yulehole – a term defined by the superb Scottish National Dictionary as “The hole in the waist-belt to which the buckle is adjusted to allow for repletion after the feasting at Christmas.” (Should you need it, the excellent Scots word pang, according to the same source, can be used to mean “to force an unwanted article on someone”. Ergo, it is the perfect word for Boxing Day, or for all the Bounty bars left in the bottom of your tub of Celebrations.) […]

Obscure words aren’t just for Christmas, either. Imagine how much our discourse could be expanded with terms like flapdoodler (19th-century slang for a dissembling political speaker), roorback (a rumour circulated for political gain), adullamite (someone dissatisfied with the current political outlook) or grantism (political cronyism and nepotism, after President Grant awarded more than 30 of his friends and relatives high-profile positions in the early 1870s).

From my perspective, as a writer keen to expound my love of language, offering up a juicy linguistic morsel, like hogamadog, is a great way, too, of piquing a reader’s interest, and using it as a gateway to explain some wonderful etymological connection, or some complex linguistic phenomenon, that might otherwise be too dry or obscure to be appreciated out of context. It’s also just a great word, of course. Seven-year-old me would have loved it.

Delightful stuff, and I sympathized with his hatred for his grad school experience (and have wound up using my linguistics education in a similar way). Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    hatred for his grad school experience

    The acknowledgments pages of grammars of African languages which began life as PhD theses seem characteristically to be full of remarks about all the wonderful people they met and how supportive everybody was. On the other hand, it may be like childbirth, where one forgets how horrible it was once the baby is born (or so I am told; but there must be something in this, or there would be no second children.)

  2. David Marjanović says

    Oh, grad-school experiences do vary a lot. I liked mine for the rather short time that it lasted (French theses are time-limited).

  3. I remember a friend arguing for the sophistication of The Simpsons by citing Mr. Burns’ statement that with Smithers gone, he was “free to wallow in [his] own crapulence.”

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, a number of these words struck me as not all that recherché; I mean, “flapdoodler” pretty much explains itself.

    The definition of “Yulehole” is wrong of course; in fact, it refers to the period over Christmas and New Year when everything shuts down and you can’t get anything done at all (“any further delay, and this meeting will fall into the Yulehole.”)

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