There are more than 170,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Most native English speakers recognize around 30,000, but only 3,000 are used in modern writing and way fewer in everyday speaking.
For the most part, a lot of it is no great loss. But to be honest, it does mean a certain amount of flair has vanished from our idioms.
I have become aware of this lately because I’ve been writing about American life and language in the last half of the 1800s. Boy oh boy, was the slang ever fabulous … and a great deal of it unprintable today by proper standards.
If you were unhappy, you had the morbs.
Admitting to a lie, you acknowledged the corn.
Have to leave town fast? You pulled foot.
A VIP was a big bug, and on the subject of bugs, a mosquito was a gallnipper.
If you were eating a sausage, you were enjoying a bag o’ mystery. Or maybe not.
Swearing was far more colorful than today, judging by the handful of phrases we throw at each other or hear on Netflix. You’ll have to do your own research in this area. But I will say that early in the 19th century, the word bitch applied to either a male or a female (anyone promiscuous). And the word swear was once itself considered a swear word.
Some lively phrases have made it through the decades, especially if you are no spring chicken yourself: a biddy is still a hen, bunkum is still claptrap, to whitewash is still to hide your shortcomings, a fix is still a jam, a bad egg is still a bad egg.
But be aware: if you use phrases like these, anyone under the age of 50 may have no idea what you’re talking about. A dear friend of mine wrote about the Gay Nineties, and the whippersnappers in the room thought she was talking about an LGBTQ gathering.
Of course, you don’t even have to go all the way back to the 1800s for lost phrases. Ask a kid the meaning of drop a dime, party line, take a powder, bobbysox or nosegay, and his eyes will glaze over.
The words you use do age you. But if they include such delightfuls as codswallop, gigglemug, ninnyhammer, and rum-hole, then who cares? You’re mighty chirky to be around.
Linda B. Myers is a founding member of Olympic Peninsula Authors and author of the new historical novel “Fog Coast Runaway,” available on Amazon.com, at lindabmyers.com or at local retailers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.