Excerpted from the introduction to my new book, Let's Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition:
As we all know, nothing falls out of fashion like fashion. History has relegated thousands of adornments to the ash bin, from togas to bustles to turbans. Yet, somehow these "glad rags" always manage to stage comebacks, sneaking into our modern wardrobes in various guises. Once-fashionable words, on the other hand, have far less comeback savvy. Once a word or phrase is regarded as passé, it usually stays on the "Don't" list forever, with little hope for redemption. It seems dreadfully unfair, but as our grandparents used to say, "That's just the way the cookie crumbles."
Over the decades, centuries, and millennia, thousands of entertaining, poignant, mischievous, and brilliant expressions have been birthed by cultural vogues and just as quickly fallen victim to them as well. Some of the rejects are far more nuanced and descriptive than the modern words and idioms conjured up to take their places--and in many cases, no satisfying substitute has been offered up at all.
Clearly, then, we must take action. The mission of my book, Let's Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition, is to revive and preserve hundreds of perfectly delightful words, phrases, idioms, and other literary flourishes from bygone eras. The restoration of these terms is not merely a quirky, history-minded pastime; rather, it's a necessary act of intervention to help us disadvantaged modern creatures express ourselves cleverly and with flair once again.
Thumbing through historical slang and idiom dictionaries, it is astonishing to see how many thousands of centuries-old expressions are still in regular use today. Let's Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition concentrates on lost or now-underused words, but research for this book showed that other lucky words--for whatever reason--have enjoyed remarkable staying power. As we casually utter these phrases, we often know nothing about their inception and evolution; we have no concept of how they made their way into our personal vocabularies in the first place. Who can remember the first time they were instructed not to "cry over spilled milk" or told about "the school of hard knocks"? These phrases just seem to have always surrounded us as naturally as the air we breathe. But they were taught to our parents by their parents and so on down the line, sometimes as far back as a dozen generations, and often boast surprising origins.
It's also fascinating to discover how many different meanings a single word can accrue over the years. For example, most of us likely associate the word "groovy" with 1960s flower children and hippies; but had you hollered out the word a century earlier, your contemporaries would have thought that you were talking about a sardine.
From a certain point of view, however, in the world of words, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Perusing the vocabularies of generations past, you realize that the same types of people and situations existed in ancient Rome or Elizabethan England that surface in contemporary New York City or Los Angeles--or Beaver Creek, Montana, for that matter. Human vocabulary may have changed, but human behavior has not. People "got out of the wrong side of the bed" in Caesar's day; the world has always been riddled with "knaves," "seek-sorrows," "gadabouts," "whipsters," and "dandiprats." Amorous couples have "firkytoodled" for years, and "ribs" (wives) have given "curtain lectures" (chastisements issued to world-weary husbands at bedtime) for millennia. Revisiting the vernaculars of bygone eras--even the forgotten parts of those vernaculars--can provide a sense of continuity, even camaraderie, with our ancestors, whom we resemble in so many ways.
Fashionable. (“Isn’t it odd how hats with big animal ears are all the go this season?”)
“An indifferentist, a Jack-of-both-sides,” as colorfully stated by The Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English (1905). The “anythingarian” might actually be a distant cousin to the pragmatist.
A wonderfully nasty yet erudite term for “social climber.” The good news: most social climbers won’t know the word and might think that you’re actually paying them a compliment, because “arriviste” simply sounds so glamorous.
A woman of the night.
This sixteenth-century word just sounds insulting, and indeed, it is: “dandiprat” means a “silly, finicky, or puerile person.”
A nineteenth-century phrase for a “lame, prevaricating excuse.”
To escape, beat it out of town.
19th -century slang for “a society wedding” (i.e., a lot of banknotes are changing hands). Reminiscent of the old saying “Money marries money and makes more money.”
An outlandishly attired woman of mature years.
A very skinny person. In certain upper-crust circles, a good vintage-ish synonym would be “social X-rays,” a term coined for ultra-thin socialites in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 satirical novel, <em>The Bonfire of the Vanities.</em>
Something that’s top-notch: “Simon, that cravat is a wee-jee. Can’t recall when I’ve seen a finer one.”
An admirably thick head of hair—something that men have been grateful for throughout time. Contemporary men proud of their “well-thatched” coifs would likely appreciate such an old-timey compliment.
A deal made when all parties involved are drinking, and therefore one that is likely to be null and void the next morning (if it is remembered at all).
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