< SWITCH ME >

If you want to speak the English language like a true descendent of Shakespeare - or of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf... - look no further. This time, Lucy Duggan shares some of her personal favourites.

fishmonger
Image: Painting by Bartolomeo Passarotti (copyright free)
A fishmonger selling some delicacies you probably wouldn't find in the supermarket.

A few years ago, the British Council asked people across the world about their favourite English words. Some of the winning words were the simple, emotive ones - "mother", "smile" and "love". But there were some weird and wonderful winners, too - like "kangaroo" and "hiccup." My favourite words are like close friends - they make me happy, and I feel linked to them by stories and memories. Of course, many words have travelled a long way into our language, so they do have a real story of their own to tell. Here are a few English words with truly strong personalities...

Smorgasbord ("a feast"): A year ago, I was at a festival in Krakow, making a radio feature as a university project. We interviewed Jeff Warschauer, a charismatic and generally awesome klezmer musician, and asked him about a new book of Jewish folksongs. We were nervous about whether he would give us any good soundbites - we were learning that one of the challenges for radio journalists is finding people who don't say "um, er" and waffle on without finishing sentences. Jeff began answering like this: "Well, it's just this fantastic smorgasbord of music, it's like I go into a room and there's all this food, and I haven't even begun to try everything yet..." His answer created a wonderful image - and the word "smorgasbord" just sounds so opulent and delicious.

Of course, "smorgasbord" is not actually an English word - it comes from the Swedish word for a big buffet of open sandwiches. But that just lends it an extra tang of Northern exoticism.

Cheesemonger ("cheese seller"): Sadly, this word doesn't get used much anymore, probably because supermarkets have replaced individual cheese shops. I associate it with my childhood, when my mother would take us to the greengrocer's, the butcher's, the cheesemonger's... She's a big fan of smelly cheese. "Monger" comes from an old English verb, "mangere", meaning "to sell". The best part is, although the word "monger" doesn't exist on its own, we have many different sorts of "monger". Some are literal, like cheesemonger, fishmonger and ironmonger... I was even pleased to find a "bikemonger" when I scoured the internet. But the word also has metaphorical combinations, which are commonly used (and newly invented) in the media: favourites are "scaremongering", "gossipmonger" and "warmonger". These are used to describe people who spread fear, gossip and war unnecessarily - and because of the word's literal background, they imply that the "monger" has something to gain from dealing in unpleasant wares.

Listless, ruthless, feckless: These words remind me of orphans. They all end in "less", each suggesting that a person is missing something, but we've lost the words they were derived from, so most people (other than language geeks) don't really know what is meant by "list," "ruth" or "feck." What would it mean to call someone "feckful" or say that they had a lot of "ruth"? If you want to join the geeks for a moment: "list" is from an old word meaning "to like" or "to wish", "ruth" means "regret" and "feck" comes from a Scots version of the word "effect." English is full of orphaned words, which often seem to have something wistful about them. Come to think of it, what would "wistless" mean?

I could probably write a whole dictionary of favourite words - what about gallivanting and skullduggery, cantankerous and simper? Mesmerise comes from the name of an Austrian doctor who was very fashionable for a while in 18th century Vienna and Paris, because he used a form of hypnotism to perform magical cures - and tantalising comes from the Greek myth of Tantalus. If you have some favourites of your own, tell us about them in the comments section below.

NEXT ISSUE
IN -1105 DAYS