PUBLISHED 01 December 2021
Okay, so I plan to get it in first, before Mr. Harrow makes good on his closing promise to slip the word into usage sometime soon, following Susie Dent’s wonderfully varied and engaging inaugural Headmaster’s Lecture which took place in AKS’ Main Hall on this last rainy evening of November.
So, no time now for scurryfunging, stop being a dardledumdue and try not to be a mumpsimus when I tell you what the word is. Keep those eyes peeled – your clue is that it was one of Ms. Dent’s words which grated on her sensibilities, which she tried to steer clear of, but, at the same time, I think secretly quite liked. No, it isn’t moist or bulbous (though she did mention both of these), and I refuse to be a snollygoster and sit on the answer for too much longer; I’m certainly not prepared to be called a bloviator and won’t latibulate about it, because she did make it quite clear to the eagerly attentive audience of young and old, from across Senior and Prep schools, that it was right at the top of her list. Therefore, with no possibility of my being accused of ipsedixitism (love this word), it was the reference to Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century’s celebrity lexicographer supreme, which featured the word in question. I mean, it’s the fact it sounds so splendidly awful which makes it so glitteringly attractive as a word. Yes, it’s the word scrofula. Please don’t look it up – you’ll only upset yourself. Ironically, Samuel Johnson actually had scrofula … and was believed to have Tourette’s Syndrome, was a manic depressive and was imprisoned - twice - for debt (in which there was, originally, no letter ‘b’ – scholars just wanted it to appear a bit like Latin). If this is what they do to you, perhaps we should all give up reference books.
Notwithstanding her curious hankering after the small print on shampoo bottles, unwieldy (why is nothing ever ‘wieldy’ these days?) corpora and Arsenal FC (there you go, Mr. Hayden, there is another one), etymologist and lexicographer Susie held her audience in thrall from the off. Demystifying idiomatic sayings like ‘stole my thunder’, revealing Countdown viewers’ letters pet peeves (Americanisms in the dictionary, apparently), and why, in 21st century times, many of us seem to mispronounce the word ‘mischievous’ (subconsciously, our brains want it to fit the syllabic patterning of a word like ‘devious’), a trail of titbits of language trivia kept everyone entertained. Titbits like our word ‘ghost’ being spelt with an ‘h’ because it was some 15th century Flemish-speaking typesetter’s bright idea just to pop one in. Or, the reason why the word ‘island’ has an ‘s’ in it is because false 15th century etymology incorrectly related it to the Old French word ‘isle’, instead of the Old English ‘iland’.
The audience’s diverse and thoughtful questions met with suitably sparkling responses and, before the evening closed, everyone was clear that Susie Dent prized lost gems of English and wanted them revived (positive words like ‘pecunious’, ‘couth’, ‘kempt’ and ‘gormful’), had charted the evolution (not the demise) of our language with aplomb, and left her listeners thoroughly gruntled and combobulated in equal measure.
John Bridges, Head of English.