HEADMASTER’S BLOG: What’s in a word?

Adam Williams | 1 November 2023

What’s in a word?


There’s a look and an action that people do when they suddenly think they’ve lost their mobile phone.  It starts with a casual feel of their pocket, before a more rapid plunging of hands in all pockets and bags, a quickening of the heart rate, a looking around one’s person (without really looking)  before the matter is solved or worse, the realisation that your technological pride and joy, is missing. This is nomophobia – the anxiety caused by being without access to a functioning mobile phone.   It is of course, different to fomophobia – the fear of missing out – actually, I think that’s a made up word…but its close enough.

Having travelled across the UK over many years, it strikes me that the Glaswegians have bragging rights on the best phrases and words.  I’m still slightly scarred from dealing with a playground incident as a young Deputy Head in Glasgow that started as a wee stushy due to a lad getting pelters and skelped from someone sleekit (those folk always rip ma knittin’), led to a square go and subsequently evolved into a stromash… I was totally scunnered at the end of the process for sure and need a donder to relax.    (In short, a fight broke out in the playground and I had to deal with it).

Since the time when humans first started shaping the air coming from within and resonating vocal chords, primarily around topics such as ‘give me that food’, ‘watch out for the snake in the bushes’ or ‘best not drink that stagnant water over there unless you fancy being up all night’, our language has ebbed and flowed and evolved. The Greeks, The Romans, The Vikings, The Celts, The Angles, the Saxons and the French are but a few who have helped our mother, tongue the most spoken language on the planet, evolve to where it is today.   The temple cult of texters and disciples of Siri and ChatGPT are now key protagonists in changing language, whilst the linguistic pedants continue to fight the good fight on programmes such as QI and Countdown with demi-gods Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig and Suzie Dent leading the literary way.

But for all those new words that make it into the Collins English Dictionary, what happens to words that stop being used?  For no matter how clever, revolutionary, or poignant, the passage of time can render anything obsolete, even words.

Recently, researchers for the Collins Dictionary released a list of words that are used so rarely that they are considered obsolete and will no longer be included in smaller print dictionaries. Their future is in the etymological Room 101. They include:

Aerodrome, bever, brabble (to argue stubbornly about trifles; to wrangle; noisy or quarrelsome chatter), charabanc, deliciate, frigorific (causing or producing cold), supererogate (to do more than duty requires), younker (a youngster or young noble).  Such a shame that anything to do with trifles is being consigned to folklore!  As an aside, please do read The Ascent of Rum Doodle (W E Bowman); a brilliant book, and its reference to trifles is epic.

But with words in mind, I must default to Susie Dent, in her book, Etymological Entertainment for Every day of the year.    Countdown is in safe hands. 


Please, please do find a way to use some of these at work or at home.  I am hoping most are not relevant to LWC!

  • mubble fubbles: how despondency and a sense of doom were described in the 16th century

  • mumpsimus: one who insists they are right, despite clear evidence that they are wrong

  • nepenthe: a magical potion in Homer’s Odyssey that liberated the mind from grief and troubles

  • scurryfunging: the mad dash to tidy up just before visitors

  • ill-willy: describing someone in the 16th century who harboured resentment

  • nod-crafty: given to nodding the head with an air of great wisdom when we tuned out earlier

  • ipsedixitist: one who makes a dogmatic assertion of a ‘fact’ because they heard someone, somewhere, say it.

  • ultracrepidarian: one who holds forth on a subject on which they have no expertise whatsoever

  • empleomania: a 19th century expression of the thirst for holding and retaining public office

  • stiffrumps: obstinate individuals who refuse to budge, no matter what

  • trumperiness: the state of being showy whilst ultimately being of little value

  • latibulater: one who hides in the corner to avoid reality

  • snollygoster: A political term for a politician who abandons all integrity to pursue their ambition

  • quockerwidger: one whose strings are pulled entirely by someone else

  • bloviator: a blower of hot air

  • ugsomeness: the all-round feeling of ‘bleurgh’ or ‘meh’

  • quafftide: the time for drinking

  • fernweh: longing to be far away

  • apricity: the warmth of the sun on a chilly day

  • confelicity: the joy we take from the happiness of others

  • respair: a 16th century word meaning fresh hope, a recovery from despair.

And so, as the evenings draw in and the late-autumn dankess arrives, and you are immersed in ugsomeness, mubble-fubble and the feeling of fernweh; when the family quafftide Christmas invites are out and your guests include stiffrumps, ultracredpidarians, brabblers and nod-craftys; when your scurryfunging suggests there should have been more forward planning and you are overcome with that feeling of fernweh, take a deep breath, grab a trifle and embrace respair and confelicity… or even better, clasp your version of The 1200 and step outside to enjoy the apricity of those frosty mornings.

Failing that, you could enjoy using my favourite word – Tagenhoffnung – the trust that today, more so than yesterday, will be a wonderful day.

And in 2024, I am definitely going to start learning Scottish Gaelic, having been putting it off for 18 months.