Most of us may know the meaning of “quell”, but I must say “discombobulate” flies over my head. So do insouciance, prolepsis and scupper. These are words found on Dictionary.com, and I daresay not many other people or texts use them aside from the dictionary. In every language, there are words like these. They may be complex or not (but to people who don’t use them often they’re always complex) but we simply cannot imagine a situation where they could have been widely used. There must have been some reason that they went out of common use.
I don’t have much expertise in the history of bombastic words, but I can surmise that in the past, status was an important social distinction. Some words were reserved for use only in casual situations, and by the lower class. Another set of words were probably used in formal upper class scenarios. It’s apparent in the language we use today as well. Some words are used in academic texts, others in polite conversation, and yet others are words mostly used with family and friends. Things like Singlish, for instance. A person speaking Singlish to the Prime Minister would be regarded as being uneducated.
Which is a peculiar idea, isn’t it? We all learn language at a young age, and to a toddler, there is no difference between learning “abuthen” and “what else?” So how do people determine which words are low-class and which are high-class? Is it because a tramp in the Middle Ages started using “bog” instead of “lavatory” that “bog” became defined as lower-class than “loo”? Speaking of which, how do people designate meanings to words? I wonder how swear words formed. How does “shit” become a rude word where “poop”, “faeces” and “fart” aren’t? Is it due to the choice of words that a furious man happened to use that sparked it off?
Speaking of class, I found a website (quite unreliable-seeming though) that talked about research where words that we think are high-class today were exclusively used by low-class people in the past. For example…
1. The use of “Pardon” is the single greatest linguistic sin for the upper and upper-middle classes. It is considered far worse to say “pardon” than to be heard uttering a four-letter word. Lower middle and middle middle classes will use pardon. Upper-middle say “Sorry?”. Upper and working classes tend to say “What?”
2. Serviette is a middle and lower class attempt to sound classier by using a French word. Apparently the word napkin was too close to nappy (the British English word for a diaper) for middle class sensibilities, but the upper class uses “napkin”.
I did throw around a few bombastic words in this entry. If you’re impressed by my linguistic skills and want to know the meanings of these words, here they are!
Discombobulate: to confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate
Insouciance: lack of care or concern; indifference.
Prolepsis: Rhetoric . the anticipation of possible objections in order to answer them in advance.
Scupper: Nautical . a drain at the edge of a deck exposed to the weather, for allowing accumulated water to drain away into the sea or into the bilges.
Some people like to play at speaking in a faux British accent for a day. Why don’t you try speaking or writing with as many uncommon words as possible for a day? It may teach you to think before you speak or write!