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Calling all tonguesters: Refresh your gossip with old words


Mark Peters, the genius behind the blog Wordlustitude in addition to being a Contributing Editor for Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, a language columnist for Babble, and a blogger for Psychology Today, is our guest blogger this week. Below Peters encourages us to make old words hip again.

Did you hear about the nude pictures of Lindsay Lohan and Roger Clemens drinking a human growth hormone/grain alcohol smoothie?

You have? Then let me tell you what my brother’s nanny has been up to with your father’s mechanic in the gazebo.

Not interested? Please. Much as we’d all like to believe we’re a little too well-placed on the evolutionary ladder to gossip and gab, studies show nine out of ten gossip-deniers are filthy liars—or so I’ve heard.

And just being part of that evolutionary ladder may predispose us to gossip: Robin Dunbar’s fantastic book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language suggests that verbal nit-picking may have the same social-bonding function as literal nit-picking for our non-human brothers and sisters of the primate persuasion.

So don’t feel bad about your loose lips: gossip is your genetic destiny and should never be questioned.

What could be questioned is our language for talking about gossip (and the closely related field of chatter). Sure, words like babbler, bad-mouth, blather, buzz, chit-chat, he-said-she-said, scuttle-butt, and tattler are perfectly serviceable, and new lingo is being created moment-by-moment on the celebublogs. But there are many forgotten, underused, colorful terms just dying to be rescued from obscurity in the Oxford English Dictionary.

So whether you’re a blogger, a journalist, a scholar, or a snitch, here are some old words to freshen up your vocabulary. And you didn’t hear them from me.

One of the many joys of romping through the OED is noticing that our familiar repertoire of words had so many similar cousins, and that today’s common word—much like today’s common salamander—had to undergo a Darwinian struggle for survival, metaphorically killing off the competition. For example, we all know the word grrr refers to a dog’s growl, but at various times and places, yar, hurr, harr, girn, narr, gnar, and the piratical-sounding arr have meant the same. Similarly, racket seems to have outlasted clacket, which is type of racket defined as “Clacking, vigorous, and incessant chatter.”

This is an exact synonym for chatterbox; prattle-box has been used too. Contemporary word-maker-uppers with less maturity than your humble guest blogger might conjure additional insults such as prattle-breath, prattle-wad, prattle-face, and prattle-butt.

Reduplication is a popular way of making words for excessive yakking, probably because yada yada, blah blah, gibble-gabble, bribble-babble, and tittle-tattle sound slightly less sensible than prelapsarian or neurosurgery. Among the other 7,834 words with a special place in my heart is whitter-whatter, which an 1825 quotation explains, “A woman who is very garrulous is said to be ‘a perfect whitter-whatter’.”

gabble, chelp, chirm
Blab-blabbing people and cheep-cheeping birds are linked by many words: gabble is one, referring to unshushable people and geese. Chelp is another, defined as “To chirp or squeak; to chatter”, and it does have a cheepy, yak-yak-y flavor to it. An even chirpier old word and synonym is chirm. I’d say the noble birds have more reason to be insulted than the hairless apes: Idiots who can’t shut up during movies rarely have feathers.

This rare 1700s word sounds like chatter, and means chatter, and in 2008 looks like a blend of chatter and snark—that bile-y word that’s omnipresent (and omni-annoying) on the web. This is much snattering in the world; it’s time we said so again.

This serious-sounding word—which means “Vacuous chatter, mere talk”—is a nonce word. In related news, my name is Mark Peters, and I am a nonce-word-aholic. Words like nonce-word-aholic make me happy as a chocolate puppy on a spring day, and I collect nonces in my humorous, not-for-kids, dictionary-blog Wordlustitude, where you can enrich your Christmas cards with words like unbiggify, two-donut-dejellification, enthrallitude, bunnycapades, cat-nookiepalooza, and man-strumpet. The OED also has a metric truckload of nonce words, including transfisticate, cakate, and podicate—which mean to dish out punches, cake, and spankings respectively. As for psilology, this OED noncer never caught on, but has a famous user, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Schools of psilology (the love of empty noise) and misosophy”(1834). Misosophy is a slightly less rare word meaning “hatred of wisdom”.

In 1913, D.H. Lawrence used and defined this short, sharp word: “The Guild was called by some hostile husbands..the ‘clat-fart’ shop—that is, the gossip-shop.” These two little syllables, representing two of the body’s less-renowned musical instruments, make for a punchy, vivid, slap-in-the-face of a word.

All those A’s make this rare, nineteenth century word for “Idle talk, prattle, chattering” feel substantial and meaty; there’s also a strong hint of bastard and garbage here. It’s a word that makes me want to use it. Cease your bavardage! I can’t take this bavardage! I will give a shiny nickel to the first blogger who works bastard and bavardage into a sentence. Hey, I win.

It’s as old as 1871, but this 1877 quote voices a common opinion: “The simple, silent, selfless man Is worth a world of tonguesters.”

And that’s as good a cue as any to end my bavardage.

Unless you want to hear what I just heard about Paris Hilton, Barry Bonds, and a Presidential candidate who I couldn’t possibly reveal…

Ben Zimmer is taking a much needed vacation. In the meantime check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.

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