Pranking and Crumping Through Snow and Pudges

Some of the world's most gloriously inventive words lie dormant in old dictionaries, unused, unwanted - thoroughly, in fact, "obs." Words like the verb "to pudder" or the noun "roudge" or the adjective "stelligerate."

"Obs." (meaning obsolete) is what dictionaries append to words now fallen into the quicksands of time.

Dictionaries of "New Words" proliferate in bookshop reference sections, but dictionaries of "Obsolete Words" are notably absent.

I just phoned the lady at the Oxford University Press dictionary department who answers unsolicited queries about words from the curious public, and she says (re. dictionaries of obs. words), "We certainly haven't published one," - and the implication of this statement is not lost on me, that "if we haven't, it is rather unlikely that anyone else has."

She was (I think) a touch amused at my suggesting that Oxford should produce one, but observed by way of excuse: "The trouble is that obsolete words have a terrible habit of suddenly coming into use again. Anthony Burgess was absolutely wicked about this. He kept digging them up and planting them in his books. And people would phone and ask us what on earth they meant. But," she admitted, "at least he really researched them and used them correctly."

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary), which runs to 20 volumes, does not, in fact, ditch obs. words; nothing is ever deleted. So for potential devotees of obs. words, nowhere could be a happier hunting ground - if you have a lifetime to spare.

Without a concise and dedicated dictionary of obs. words, though, how are my long-suffering readers to find out the ancient and obscure meanings of "stelligerate," "steepwise," "roudge," and "pudder" - unless they go on-line to Oxford or read the entire works of Anthony Burgess?

Some of the most heartwarming of obs. words probably almost left before they arrived. Among these are various country words that often seem to have entered the English vocabulary like a flash in the pan.

The other day I came across the wonderful word "sodgy" used by the rural H. E. Bates, writing in the 1930s. Either it was a word he had heard some country person say, and transcribed it, or it was his invention. Either way, who could deny its excellence to describe earth in an April woodland? Bates's phrase is "the rich sodgy wood-soil."

Over a century earlier, the Northamptonshire "peasant" poet John Clare included in his poetry whatever words he knew - and he ran straight up against the literary taste of London (where his work was edited and published). "John Taylor, the publisher," wrote Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield in the 1966 introduction of their Clare selection, "felt entitled to correct Clare's grammar, his rhyme-schemes, and his vocabulary." But such editing inevitably erased or flattened out much of the poet's fresh authenticity.

Robinson and Summerfield did not "correct" Clare but added a glossary to help readers faced with "obscurity." And in that glossary appear such words as "pranking" for frolicsome; "pudge" for a small puddle; "rawky" for misty or foggy; and "younker" for youngster.

Every Clare reader will have favorite Clare-words. My own certainly include "pudge"; "swoof" meaning a deep sigh or breath; "sputter" meaning to run up quickly with a commotion; and "mizardly" to denote miserly.

To "prog," I think, is a much better verb than to poke or prod, or just as good; to "joll" is unsurpassable as the word for "to walk lumberingly along."

And when Clare wants to evoke the experience of sloshing through mud, with which all country dwellers are only too familiar, the verb he uses is to "drabble."

Finally, though, nothing comes close to the word Clare used for the sound frozen snow makes when you walk on it.

That word is "crumping."

The OED lists quite a number of definitions of the word "crump." More than a few are "obs." But it is more than pleasant to discover that Clare's use of "crumping" or to "crump" was not some fantasy of his imagination but had an 18th-century precedent. And furthermore, the compilers of the great OED do not see fit to label it obsolete. Quite right, too. Some words are "imm." (meaning immortal).

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