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A global ingle-neuk, or, the size of our vocabulary

By Anatoly Liberman


The size of our passive vocabulary depends on the volume of our reading.  Those who grew up in the seventies of the twentieth century read little in their childhood and youth, and had minimal exposure to classical literature even in their own language. Their children are, naturally, still more ignorant. I have often heard the slogan: “Don’t generalize!” and I am not. I am speaking about a mass phenomenon, not about exceptional cases. Try the simplest experiment: walk into a room full of college students and ask: “Have you read…?” Name any book from Gilgamesh to Goodbye, Columbus (the titles have been chosen for the sake of alliteration) and see how many of those present will raise their hands.  So far, I have discovered only one “text” everybody seems to know, to wit, “Chicken Little” (“The Sky Is Falling”). Given the state of the market, recent authors use only the vocabulary their public can recognize; the more primitive the language, the more copies the publisher will sell. A student complained to me once that he had difficulty understanding my colleague who teaches Russian. I was surprised because I knew the man; his Russian is excellent. “You cannot understand his Russian?” I inquired. “No,” was the answer, “I don’t understand the English words he uses.” (Both the instructor and the student were native speakers of American English.) I remember similar remarks from my own experience and have been working for years on diminishing my “word hoard.” Compare the vocabulary of Charles Dickens and George Meredith with that of the books remaining “ten weeks on the NYT Best Seller list” and draw your own conclusions.

These thoughts occurred to me when I was looking through an eleven-page glossary appended to the Oxford edition of Walter Scott’s Old Mortality (Oxford World’s Classics, 1993). It is an exemplary edition and there was every reason to supplement it with a glossary. Many of the local words in the novel were and are foreign to readers south of the border, but quite a few surprised me. Is it possible that someone who can still enjoy Walter Scott should not be able to recognize them? My examples will be relatively few. Since this is an etymological blog, occasional hints to origins are given below (the spelling in the definitions will be those of the British edition).

Besom “broom; bad-tempered woman” (common to all the West Germanic languages; cf. German Besen) Few will remember the biblical source of the figurative sense, but what about the direct sense “broom”?

Bide “wait, tolerate, endure.” Are the phrase bide one’s time and the connection between bide and abide forgotten? (In abide, a- is a prefix, as in amaze, ashamed, and so forth.) A related question can be asked about fend “protect, provide, etc.” Do the phrase to fend for oneself and the closeness of fend to defend provide no clue to the meaning of fend?

Blithe “happy” (a common Germanic word; bliss is related to it). It means “joyous,” but the distance between “joyous” and “happy” is not great. The adverb blithely seems to occur more often than the adjective.

Brogue “coarse shoe” (a noun of Celtic origin). Brogue “Irish accent” and its probable association with brogue “shoe” must be alive, at least in the UK; however, I cannot judge.

Cronie, known to me only as crony (seventeenth-century university slang, ultimately from the Greek word for “time,” as in chronology, chronicle, and others). Do only Americans speak contemptuously about Mr. X and his cronies?

Dram “a drink of whisky” (ultimately again from Greek); a very common word in nineteenth-century books.

Duds “rags; clothes” (of obscure origin). In my post on dude, I discussed its unlikely derivation from duds and took everybody’s familiarity with duds for granted. Was I mistaken?

Bartizan, Greenknowe Tower, Scottish Borders. Photo by Supergolden, 2006. (CC-BY-SA)
Bartizan “overhanging look-out turret projecting from a tower or parapet” and escalade “scaling the walls of a fortress using ladders” are like most Middle English military terms from French, though bartizan is a pseudo-archaic use of the Scots variant of bratticing (see the OED [sub req'd]), a word introduced and popularized just by Walter Scott. Obviously, vampires, witches, and wizards have ousted medieval knights from the popular imagination. Harry Potter vanquished Ivanhoe, and roaring lions are no match for silent lambs, but still…

Causeway “paved road” (a Romance word; it has nothing to do with cause: the loss of l in the middle severed the tie between its root and the reflexes of Latin calx “chalk’). I doubt that the noun has fallen into oblivion.

Harry “drag by force” (Common Germanic except Gothic). Does the biblical phrase the harrying of hell shed no light on the verb?

Mad “angry.” Don’t we still say: “I am mad at you”?

Nice “discriminating.” Everybody understands that nice distinctions are not necessarily pleasant distinctions, so that the older connotations of nice have not been wholly superseded by its present day meaning. (Compare fine dust: we don’t think that such dust is excellent.)

Touzle “disarrange.” This is a variant of tousle, as in tousled hair. Wait for glosses like realise “realize” and vice versa.

Grewsome is “gruesome.” Are we such matter of fact, down to earth people that we need help even here? Another spelling “conundrum,” as learned people like to say, is shamoy leather “chamois leather,” that is, chamois.

Hoity-toity belongs to an age gone by. Consequently, the interjection hout-tout (the same meaning) is probably opaque; too bad.

Worsted “woollen thread” and hodden grey “home-spun coarse woollen cloth.” Worsted (from a place name) must be clear to everybody; hodden (of uncertain origin) often occurs in nineteenth-century fiction, and not only in the works of Burns and Scott.

I assume that the game trick-track is more familiar to modern readers that bartizan, but there is a helpful gloss here too.

I have no idea how well people in the UK know regional words:

Bannocks, we are told, are flat cakes of oatmeal baked on a griddle, and that is what they certainly are.

Ingle-neuk (neuk = nook) “chimney corner.” Neuk is rather hard to guess, but ingle, a dear old word, must be less puzzling.

Humble cow “hornless cow” will indeed look odd to some people despite the phrase’s spread in northern dialects. Humble cows are not known for their humility, and Tacitus already noted that the ancient “Germans” cultivated this breed.

The glossary explains shaw “wood, thicket.” Doing so must have been a good idea. I have often cited shaw in my classes, while explaining Old Norse skógr “forest, wood.” No one recognizes shaw (or, for that matter, its synonym copse), though everybody knows the corresponding family name. As a result, I have to point to shaggy, another cognate of skógr.

Quean “girl, wench” has also faded from memory. I know this fact from my futile attempts to use Engl. quean in teaching Old English and Gothic. (Quean is not a doublet of queen: the two words are congeners, but at one time they had different vowels, a fact imperfectly rendered by the modern difference between ea and ee.)

Guessing that lassock is a diminutive of lass might not be too hard (cf. bittock “a little bit” in the glossary), and perhaps most southerners are aware of the fact that northern -g corresponds to southern -dge, so that “translating” brigg as “bridge” (especially in context) would not have been too formidable a task.

My list (I have a few more words to discuss but can do without them) is not meant as a criticism of an admirable edition. Obviously, the editors appraised the state of people’s knowledge of English quite accurately and did the right thing. Nor am I in the habit of bemoaning “the lost treasures of English.” Words die and spring up every day. But we needn’t accelerate the death of what should stay alive. The appearance of an insurmountable barrier between older culture (I say “older,” not ancient or medieval) and modernity is always sad to watch. We have reached a stage at which our young people feel comfortable only in dealing with one another, especially when they sit in a global ingle-neuk, text from the most recent contraption, and crunch a homemade bannock. Life is beautiful, but I am afraid this is not much of a subject for congratulation.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Fredric Dennis Williams

    Is it not possible that “hoity-toity” has its origins, as is suggested by “hout-tout” in French “haute” + “tout” — “all high”? To me it does not suggest, as the etymology indicates “indulge in riotous mirth” but rather someone with their nose in the air.

    And as a side-note, as someone who has prepared Korean students for top universities, they do read many novels — although with great reluctance in many cases. Just as Shakespeare was deemed unworthy in his day, so are films and television programs viewed as having doubtful merit. Perhaps we are headed for a future in which reading has been replaced by seeing and hearing — after all, I recall being told that Homer wasn’t written down for about 500 years. It is no doubt easier being a blind poet who talks than it is relying on a relative to write down what you say.

  2. mesnenor

    Couldn’t you find a picture of a bartizan with a balustrade?

  3. John Cowan

    The gloss of mad is presumably for the benefit of the English, who don’t use it in the sense ‘angry’. The last OED3 quotation from an English author is Trollope 1867, and I find it rather marginal.

  4. Annie Morgan

    Depressing I find it. Ah well. Do you think some bright school board might finagle a sneaky change in the reading requirements of its highschool students – one classic book per term each year. I can hear the whiney cries of ‘but no-one speaks like that now’. Trends often start with highschool youngsters, and they might just try using some of the words – in mock at first, but later maybe enjoy using the more useful sort in their essays and then general life.
    Oh all right, wishful thinking it is.

  5. Marc Leavitt

    Maugre your contention, I think those who read have always read; those who do not, did not in earlier times, given an exception, perhaps, for the 19th century, when novelists like Dickens were read aloud at home, absent modern entertainment options.

  6. Tamas Ferencz

    I live just a few yards from a street called The Causeway, in a small town in the Old Blithy, where houses with Inglenook fireplaces are highly valued (although I have not seen it spelled ‘neuk’ yet), so there you are. Oh, and I often wear brogues.

  7. Nigel Smith

    I find it very irritating when a book I am reading is interrupted by endnotes of words with meanings which should either be obvious to most people, or could be found in any dictionary.
    ‘Quean’ is still extant as ‘quine’ in Scots.
    As one of the English (more specifically an Anglo-Scot) I would say that ‘mad’ is very commonly used to mean ‘angry’ in British English; the online OED gives a quotation from Edgar Wallace in 1925 which is a shade more recent than 1867. I asked my 21-year-old daughter what the definition of ‘mad’ was and she asked which I meant: angry or insane mad. When tested the same daughter also knew the definition of all but five of the words you mention (and had a good guess at ‘escalade’), so she at least isn’t one of the general ignorant mass you mention. But I admit she might be much more widely read than the average 21-year-old.

  8. Nigel Smith

    Copse & shaw aren’t exactly synonyms. A shaw is a thicket or small wood, whereas a copse is a thicket or small wood which is or has been managed by coppicing, so a copse is a shaw but a shaw isn’t necessarily a copse.

  9. Kniffler

    ‘Shaw’ should be familiar to many young people from Tolkien’s Trollshaws, if nothing else.

    I’m holding on to a slim hope that ‘quean’ (and variant ‘quine’) will make a comeback due to the recent popularity of online Scrabble.

  10. [...] or be ameliorated. German Recke “knight errant; hero” is a cognate of Engl. wretch; Engl. mad (an example cited in a recent blog) is a cognate of a Gothic adjective meaning “crippled” and of a Middle High German adjective [...]

  11. [...] My post on Walter Scott’s vocabulary and the words explained in the commentary was met with a small barrage of rather friendly fire. Two correspondents (one via email) assured me that people still read books. I have no doubt they do. That is why I noted that I was speaking about a mass phenomenon and disregarded exceptions. I constantly deal with students. Some are amazingly well-read, while others have read virtually (actually, essentially: choose your favorite buzzword) nothing. Peevish resentment against the use of less common English words in lectures is rife; look through students’ evaluations of their professors. (I do not mean myself, for in my undergraduate courses I stopped using “fancy” words like doctrinaire and perspicacious long ago.) A public speaker’s rich vocabulary smacks of elitism, a crime only a notch above rape. [...]

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