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Antiquated Words and Phrases

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An old-style microphone in front of a speech bubble with antiquated words and phrases
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
- James D Nicoll

The age of the Internet has sped up the homogenization of the language used by the world's English speaking countries. Indeed, the very way we express ourselves is rapidly changing; we're increasingly communicating via emoticons, abbreviations and acronyms. The very fabric of the language spoken by our grandparents, parents and even ourselves a decade ago is being lost and rendered obsolete. Which is why we asked you to share with us those words and phrases that we no longer use, or words that we rarely use, that evoke another time and place.

Unravelling the Origins of the Word 'Ye'

According to David Crystal's Encyclopedia of English Language, 'ye' was originally 'the', but during the Middle English period scribes wrote both y and a now defunct letter called thorn in the same way. Thorn was still pronounced 'th' but later readers mistook it for a y: hence 'ye' instead of 'the'.

The graph1 'thorn' looks more or less like this Þ. Icelandic is a very close descendant of Old High Norse, more so than any of the other Scandinavian languages. Old high Norse was one of the many languages to have had an influence on the development of English. Though English is basically a Germanic language, languages such as French and Norse have had a large impact. For example, the words 'beef' and 'cow' are cognates - words that have the same meaning and a common ancestor. In this case, beef comes from French and cow from Saxon, though both originally came from the same word in Proto-Indo European, the reconstructed language to which most modern European languages can be traced back. 'Beef' came into English through Norman French, as it was used by the ruling Normans to describe the meat they ate. 'Cow', on the other hand, was the word used by the Saxon farmers to describe the animals they reared. This is one of the main reasons that English has such a rich (and often complicated) vocabulary - theft! Or, to be more linguistic about it, 'borrowing'.


Some interjections and mild forms of swearing have sadly fallen out of fashion, and are now only used in Shakespearean pastiche along with 'verily', 'forsooth' and 'i'faith', despite the fact that the Bard was responsible for more neologisms (ie, new words) than almost any other figure in English literature. The following words came from the restrictions placed on Elizabethan drama, as the Lord's name was not to be taken in vain...

  • Steeth derived from God's teeth
  • Struth derived from God's truth
  • Zounds derived from God's wounds
  • Gadzooks derived from God's hooks, in other words the nails that were used to nail Jesus to the cross.

Moving forward in time, if you were to believe everything you see in black-and-white films of the 1930s and '40s, nobody actually uttered a single honest-to-goodness guttural swear word until around the same time women were burning bras and men rebelled by growing their hair beyond their shirt collars. It was a time when it was considered improper to swear in front of ladies. If at all. In place of something a little more Anglo-Saxon, you'd hear much more innocent and imaginative expletives such as:

  • By Jove
  • By George
  • By tarnation

... a second after hitting a thumb, hard, with a hammer. The true mark of a man is his emotional restraint in the face of adversity.

Sound Like you're in a British Propaganda War Film

In a similar vein, there are those words which are solely responsible for portraying to the world the British as reserved, cheery upper middle-class decent chaps like Kenneth More in Reach for the Sky, Richard Todd in The Dam Busters and David Niven in everything.

  • Tally-ho!
  • Chocks away!
  • Toodle pip!
  • I say!

These are phrases are now used by any film-maker wanting to hammer home the posh British male stereotype of old. See John Gielgud in Arthur, Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient and Hugh Grant in everything.

Children and Swearing

Do you remember ever being asked 'Didn't they ever teach you any manners in school?'. To which you really, really wanted to answer very sarcastically 'Yes. On a Tuesday, period two, right between maths and geography. We have lessons in manners.' The truth of the matter is that children swear just like the rest of us, though we wish they didn't. But view any children's television programme, a couple of hours before the watershed, and you'd think that the language in some children's drama were lifted straight from the pages of an Enid Blyton book.

  • Whoops-a-daisy!
  • Crippens!
  • Crumbs!
  • Crikey!
  • Sugar!
  • Flaming Norah!
  • Flippin' heck!

All right, that's a complete exaggeration, but characters in Grange Hill2 don't exactly swear like troopers like real kids, do they?

The 'B' Word

Bloody, the expletive, is a bastardisation of the phrase 'By Our Lady!' Referring, of course, to the Virgin Mary. However, when the word 'bloody' is used becomes descriptive and conjures up all sorts of gory medieval surgical nastiness in the phrases 'bloody mess' or 'bloody nightmare'.

The word 'bleeding', surprisingly, is not a precise derivation of 'bloody'. 'Bleeder' is a derogatory term for a despicable person, hence the call of adults to urchins 'Come here, you little bleeder'.


Rapscallion, meaning a naughty person, is a great word to use said with feeling when the vicar, minister, priest, rabbi, or any other person you want to impress calls for tea and the cat starts licking the cream cakes. As in 'You little rapscallion!'

The literal meaning is scamp or rascal, from the obsolete term rascallion.

Changes in Meaning Over Time

The Other 'B' Word

Quite simply over time, the word bastard has become a derogatory term. It used to be used to define the relationship between aristocratic family members, but is now generally used to mean anyone who doesn't behave nicely.

So, William the Conqueror's parents were not married, and he was quite accurately known as 'William the Bastard', which was a statement of simple genealogical fact. Whether the Saxons called him this because he behaved like a b*****d to the people he conquered is now a matter of conjecture.

Therefore, calling someone a right royal b*****d without any documented proof is a no-no.


Did you know that until recently 'overtake' meant to catch up with, not to pass.


Presently used to mean 'at once'. Quite why it now means 'in a while' is a mystery. A sign that everyone's getting lazy and apathetic, perhaps?

Out of Fashion

Gone for good, and never to return, except in a post-modern ironic and detached manner, of course.

  • Radical
  • Cowabunga
  • Bodacious
  • Hip
  • Groovy
  • Wacky
  • Zany
  • Kooky
  • Far out

The Be Words

The be-words are fascinating: betide, begotten, (mis-begotten), benighted, bestride, becalmed, beheld. Take a verb, become its subject, and there you go...

Then there's 'betide' as in 'woe betide anybody who...' meaning 'to happen to'.

What Goes Around Comes Around


In looking at old language you cannot help but marvel at the flexibility of the English language. You only have to look at the word well and the word dude, to see that. But there are those words that can be used for any sort of application that takes your fancy. The word 'whirligig' can be used to describe anything that continuously spins, from helicopters to rotary clothes dryers you see on folks' patios (or your head, after a few too many cocktails). Occasionally, you'll also find whirligigs on rooftops - devices which spin in the wind to take the moisture out of attics, and in autumn you'll see those spinning (helicopter-like) seeds that fall off sycamore trees and travel on the wind.

The term is also used to describe a type of water beetle which progresses across a pond by what appears to be the Brownian Motion principles exhibited by a lukewarm cup of tea.

What's Old in One Part of the World is Current in Another


Use the word 'fortnight' (meaning a two-week period) in front of a couple of 50-something Californians, and they'll wax lyrical about how they haven't heard that word since their childhood. In the States it's the sort of word that is only ever seen in 19th Century novels, though it's in daily use in the UK.

Phrases our Grandmothers Used to Say

Figuring largely in the early lives of a number of h2g2 Researchers are various elderly people - grannies, grand-dads, Mr Chips-like teachers dragged kicking and screaming back from the outer boundaries of retirement - who, bless them, were a little-understood lot. What were they going on about?

The maths master (and deputy head) was an old style teacher and disciplinarian. When working on a complex mathematical proof, he was asked by one of the pupils why he was following the path he had taken, he would say 'There are more ways of killing a cat, than choking it with cream'. My father, who was a much more down to earth person, often used a variation of this, 'There are more ways of killing a cat, than stroking its a*** with its tail'.

Lotus-eaters and Poodle Fakers

The English language is one of immense diversity due to its ability to absorb other languages, and to constantly grow, but at times it does seem to have lost some of its colour. Which is an argument for reintroducing some of the more esoteric phrases...

My grandfather's summation of the youth of today was as a bunch of lotus-eaters and poodle fakers... can't remember the exact meaning but I think a lotus-eater is basically a drunken layabout, professional procrastinator and general doer of not much. A poodlefaker was someone who spent their time in the company of loose women (as in loose moral fibre), also not doing very much.

The 'lotus-eater' of the phrase may refer to one of the personality types described in philosophy, a steady sort who likes to stay at home, who is usually contrasted with the adventurer, who reaches for the moon, or who always has his gaze on far away places. They're called lotus-eaters after the ancient Egyptian practice of eating lotus. Recent discoveries show it was distilled, dried, smoked, drunk, powdered and smeared by Egyptians. The plant was ubiquitous on the Nile and it got into everything.

Whether it had nutritive, aphrodisiac or narcotic properties, the discovery of the lotus image in everything Egyptian, coincided with widespread opium use (and addiction) as a fact of life among intellectuals in Britain, throughout Europe and America in the last half of the 19th Century. Probably the assumption - from poppy to lotus - was an egocentric projection. The laid-back, self-indulgent life-style associated with 'lotus-eaters' is probably more appropriately ascribed to the 'opium eaters'.

However, the earliest use of the word 'lotus-eater' is in Homer's Odyssey, when Odysseus arrives in the Land of the Lotus-eaters. The people there devoured a plant called the lotus, which produced laziness and idle bliss. Odysseus's sailors became addicted to the stuff, until noble Odysseus whipped them into shape, forced them aboard their ship and made them go cold turkey.

Not allowed happy weeds or islands of beautiful young women, they carried on sailing through monsters and storms for ten years. Poor b******s.

Quite what poodle fakers had to do with it, is yet another mystery.

You've Hit the Nail on the Head

And then there are those phrases with much clearer meanings:

  • Don't buy a pig in a poke - get all the details.

  • When pigs fly - and - In a pig's eye - not likely to happen.

  • You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink - you can't force someone to do something.

  • I'll show you where the bear s**t in the buckwheat/do bears s**t in the woods? - here's the truth/Of course, absolutely, there's no need to even ask.

  • Crooked as a dog's hind leg; Snake in the grass - less than honest.

  • You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

  • Money won't buy you happiness, but if you have it, you can choose what type of misery you want.

  • What are you going to do today? (answer) 'Pile up what I did yesterday.' In other words, I did nothing yesterday, and I'm not planning to do anything today, either.


There are a few odd terms for American money that one occasionally hears from an old timer.

  • Two bits - term for a quarter dollar (25-cent piece)

  • Four bits - term for a half dollar (50-cent piece)

Both of these terms originated from the Spanish doubloon, which could be broken up into eight wedges.

  • C-note - term for a $100 bill from 'century note'

  • Sawbuck - term for a $10 bill, from a sawhorse with X-shaped legs and the reference in money is to the Roman numeral X.

  • Fin - a term for a $5 bill, from the Yiddish, finf, meaning five, and the German fünf.

In Canada, pennies used to be called coppers; a dollar coin used to be a buck, but is now a looney; and a two dollar bill used to be shunned once upon a time, as two dollars used to be the cost of a prostitute, but now it's called a twoney and is a coin, and is quite acceptable.

In Other Words


Personal hygiene activities.


Another word for bulls**t.


An assortment of nik-naks.


Another word for a bee.


Meaning disuse - these antiquated words have fallen into desuetude of late.


As in 'I'm going away for a while, so I'll give the car a quick fettle to make sure it's all right!' It basically means 'To give something a quick once-over to make sure it's OK'.


An alternative word for bat, that actually sounds a great deal cooler. It has the effect of the making the bat sound all cute and cuddly, as opposed to an evil creature of the night...


As in 'Get your gubbins together' meaning to tidy up and pick up your worthless bits and pieces. It also means a dim person.


Having the jitters, a state of nervousness.


Hootenanny is a group of folk singers and musicians. Anyone can participate. It's a lot of fun, especially under the influence of moonshine.


Is a euphemism for 'doing the beast with two backs' (which is another antiquated euphemism in itself).


Did you know that the word 'navvie' stems from the word 'navigator'? It was originally used to describe the groups of workers who built the canals and railways. Basically because they 'navigated' their way across the country. Today navvy means someone who does hard manual labour, typically working with a jack-hammer on the roads.


A term of endearment for a girl - from the Saxon word for girl.

Road Apples

The droppings from when horses delivered milk and bread.


Probably an altered version of 'skedaddle', meaning 'go away'.


The very useful word 'thrice' which has practically died out on both sides of the pond, means 'three times', not to be confused with 'in a trice'.

Up mine, Sunshine

One from a misspent childhood, this. It's an argument ender: it usually ended with two kids rolling around in the dirt.


Food and drink.

1In this context, graph is a symbol representing a sound.2Grange Hill is a seminal BBC children's television series set in a British state school.

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