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Can We Make An Old Word Modern?

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon wonders if an old word can be made modern.

I am not in favor of bringing back old words that have died a natural death. Even though I occasionally find somewhere in the pages of a dictionary a single word that perfectly describes some broad concept I’ve been wondering how to describe I still would rather not attempt to force the word back into daily speech.

This is not to say that I do not enjoy finding such words, or that I do not think that they are applicable in everyday life. It means that I consider it counter-productive to interject some long disused, and largely unknown term simply because it happens to have had the right meaning hundreds of years ago. I am not against unusual or obscure words being used, but I am against them being used solely because they are unusual or obscure.

But I well understand the temptation that arises when a word is discovered that is so remarkable in its specificity, so exactly right for the situation at hand that one inevitably thinks “This is a word we should bring back into everyday use”. This is what I think about hansardize.

Hansardize is defined by the OED as “To confront (a member of Parliament) with his former utterances as recorded in ‘Hansard’; to prove (a person) to have formerly expressed a different view or opinion.” It is an eponymous word, taken from the name of the printer, Thomas Hansard, who long published the official report of the debates of the Houses of Parliament. The word appears to have had a relatively brief lifespan, existing primarily in the second half of the 19th century.

It seems a shame that it didn’t last longer, as I have never seen a word that is more politically appropriate for this time of an election year. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are furiously searching the entire record of each opponent’s every statement through the years, trying to find something that contradicts a current position, or which at least is embarrassing.

Given that it did not enjoy a prolonged existence, and yet so obviously describes a phenomenon for which we need a word, I wonder if some other word will come to take the place of hansardize. Perhaps the new word, if and when it arrives, will also encompass all the other media that have arisen since the Parliamentary debates were printed by Thomas Hansard. Or perhaps it has already arrived, and I am just not yet aware of it.

By the way, I found the brief history I read of Hansard (the report, although the printer himself was also interesting) hugely fascinating, and would recommend it to all. It has political intrigue, unjust prison terms, the remarkable 18th century politician John Wilkes, and an early hero with the almost perfect name of Brass Crosby. What more could you possibly ask for in the history of a Parliamentary report?

Recent Comments

  1. Book Calendar

    I think it is fun to read old words sometimes. For example, if the author is writing slang for a word that might appear in a 1950s hardboiled mystery it makes sense.

    I think old words that are almost dead often spice up historical novels or fantasy novels as well.

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