What! LOL and Fopdoodle

No, I haven’t lost it completely, but I have been reading David Crystal’s latest book, The Story of English in 100 Words. Professor Crystal has written all sorts of books about the English language, but this little delight is a perfect Christmas present for the bookish person in your life. It’s a brief history of the language presented in the form of one hundred words, each chosen because they say something about the way English has developed, since the earliest words of the 5th century through to the latest inventions (twittersphere, muggle, unfriend) of the 21st. It’s a great book to dip into, funny and intriguing and informative.

I never knew, for instance, that both gaol and jail in English were originally borrowed from the French, only gaol appeared in the 13th century from Normandy, and jail was a Parisian version that came along later. A whole series of words were borrowed twice, and to make matters worse, their meanings changed too. Hence the Norman reward, warden, warrant and wile are not quite the same as the Parisian regard, guardian, guarantee and guile.

Then there’s disinterested and uninterested. The difference here springs from the different ways we can use the word ‘interest’, as meaning both a curiosity about something, and a sense of personal advantage to be gained through something. Negating these meanings caused all kinds of confusion as disinterested began in the early 17th century by meaning ‘unconcerned or indifferent’ but by mid-century stood for ‘impartial’. Uninterested arose at the same time – mid 17th century – as ‘impartial’ and then a century later was being taken for ‘unconcerned, indifferent’. Dr Johnson tried to stabilise the meanings, by declaring disinterested meant unbiased and uninterested meant incurious. But still today there is a lack of distinction between the terms, and disinterested has tended to be used increasingly to mean ‘bored’.

Oh and I must tell you about blurb. This word first appeared on a piece of publicity for an American book back in 1907. It was at a publishing trade dinner where free copies of the book were being handed out to the guests. The special dust jacket showed a photo of a lady, a Miss Melinda Blurb, with her hand cupped to her mouth, ostensibly shouting out praises of the book. ‘YES this is a BLURB’ ran the headline, and the accompanying text was a gush of superlative praise: ‘When you’ve READ this masterpiece, you’ll know what a BOOK is.’ So not everything changes in the world of words.

There are loads of these kinds of insights, and they all make you want to go and tell someone about them. Like, did you know that the most written words are the, of, and and a, whilst the most common spoken words are the, I, you and and. And it’s not at all ungrammatical to begin a sentence with ‘and’, either. 19th century schoolteachers took against their pupils doing it, and so they banned the practice entirely, but it doesn’t feature in any of the prescriptive rules of grammar. I was delighted to know this as I do it all the time, and have often been called out on it (I just like the way it sounds inside your head). What! or Hwæt! As it would have been spelt, was one of the oldest ways of gaining the attention of a crowd by Anglo-Saxon poet-minstrels in mead halls when they were about to do their thing. It could be used to express surprise or shock, but was also one of the original ways of saying hello. Fopdoodle is ‘one of those words that people regret are lost when they hear about them’ Crystal comments. It means an idiot, a fool. Equally lost are ‘nappiness’ which meant ‘the quality of having a nap’ and a ‘curtain-lecture’ which was ‘a reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed’. Oh boy, shouldn’t we get that one back in circulation? I know I could use it. All these come from Professor Crystal poring over Johnson’s dictionary so we don’t have to.

There’s something hypnotic about the old words and their development, but the book is equally good on the new ones. Reading it reminded me that LOL had a confused start in the language, meaning ‘lots of love’ to some people and ‘laugh out loud’ to others. ‘Who knows how many budding relationships foundered in the early 2000s because recipients took the abbreviation the wrong way?’ the author asks. I confess I thought it meant lots of love for ages; acronyms and abbreviations of all kind are just disastrous for me because I never quite get them right. It’s interesting to see how the most recent words have developed out of shortenings and mash-ups, like the acronyms LOL and PC, and chillax and webzine. What does that say about modern language use, I wonder?

This is a real chocolate box for word lovers and I thoroughly enjoyed it, which is quite something because I’m not a person who really likes dipping-into books. Do bear it in mind if you need a present for a keen reader.


17 thoughts on “What! LOL and Fopdoodle

  1. Oh, what a great concept! I read a book called The Evolution of Language some time ago and really enjoyed it, but it was somewhat technical for my tastes. This sounds like a great alternative.

  2. This sounds delightful! I have a number of bookish friends on my Christmas list and this will be perfect 🙂 Thanks…

    Of course I do want one for myself!

  3. Love the sound of this one. And fopdoodle and curtain-lecture should definitely be revived! As for LOL, I always thought it meant ‘laugh out loud’ and my wife thought it meant ‘lots of love’. I’m glad our relationship survived. 🙂

  4. Oh what fun! Love the story about blurb! And I regularly use “what” as an exclamation. Would love to use it instead of hello when answering the phone but I don’t suppose people would appreciate that. I am now on the alert for instances whare I might be able to use fopdoodle in conversation!

  5. This sounds delightful, and like it would make the linguistics geek in me ridiculously happy. I might accidentally leave a tab with your review open on my partner’s computer 😛

  6. Hah–I have used disinterested in things I was writing only to look at it and think–no that is not the right word at all–maybe that’s not even a word–I really need to use uninterested. And here, I see, it is a word and I was even using it correctly. Must give myself the benefit of the doubt more often! 😉 This sounds great–maybe even as a little gifty for myself. It’s on my list now–thanks!

  7. Aarti – I’ve got one of Stephen Pinker’s books, but I confess I haven’t read it, whilst this one I dived straight into! The origin and development of words is really fascinating, and I love these reader-friendly accounts of them. I’d love to know what you think if you get hold of it!

    Claire – it really is a fun book. And I so want curtain-lecture to come back into daily use. Well, I know I’ll be using it for sure! 😉

    David – yes, I think you’d appreciate this. David Crystal is a very intelligent writer, but he is also light and funny and beguiling. Would love to know what you think of it.

    Becca – if you get hold of a copy, let me know what you think!

    Melody – I confess some of my best Christmas presents have been given by me, to me… Do hope you have fun with it.

    Pete – LOL! I am so glad there are no essential acronyms involved in marriage. Not only do I forget what they mean, but I’m married to a dyslexic – can you imagine the confusion??? This was such a cute little book, lots of fun.

    Caroline – that made me laugh, too. I do hope your bookish ‘friend’ gets everything she wants, and then some!

    Stefanie – creasing up here at the thought of you yelling What! down the phone. Oh, I know! You could go the P.G. Wodehouse route and call out ‘What ho!’. That would be very jolly and acceptable. With my job, I fear that fopdoodle is a word I could use all too often! 😉

    jenclair – oh what a teaser of a comment. I’ll have to go and look those words up now to see what their origins were! Words are very curiosity-provoking once you have started to think about them.

    Lilian – oh you should see the picture of Miss Blurb. She looks very commanding! Cardboard cut-outs by dumpbins in bookstores ought to be compulsory…. no one would leave without buying something!

    Nymeth – now what a wise idea that is! Mister Litlove is tab-mad and almost always has about a dozen open at any one time. How simple it would be to substitute some of my Christmas desires for his dull woodworking sites…… Hmmm……

    Danielle – the disinterested/uninterested debate caught my eye for exactly the same reason! When I was full time at the university I used to be rigorous about such things, but now I am terribly lax and carefree. I’m sure someone will pick me up on a mistake and haul me over the coals for it one of these days! Would love to know what you think of this if you get it. It is a very good dipping-in sort of book.

    Care – I love suggestions! Thank you for that one – will be looking it up right away!

  8. Pingback: Library Loot: March 21 – 27 « The Captive Reader

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