The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities 

A Yearbook of Forgotten Words (2017)

Every day since 10 December 2013, the @HaggardHawks Twitter feed has been bringing you a daily Word of the Day. As a general rule (as with all HH words) these Words of the Day are lifted from the more obscure corners of often the more obscure dictionaries, with the aim of bringing you a daily shot of vocabulary of which you’ll hopefully never have heard. And now, there’s an entire year’s worth of words on offer—with an extra slice of historical trivia thrown in for good measure.

The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities brings together 366 (yes, 29 February is here too) obscure Words of the Day, every one of which—from quaaltagh to handsel—has some kind of connection to the date in question. So you can celebrate JRR Tolkien’s birthday on 3 January with the story behind a word he invented, eucatastophe. The date a brand new top hat caused a riot in central London in 1797—15 January—is marked with the story behind alamodic, a seventeenth century word for something that is the height of fashion. And the date on which the entirely ice-bound Battle of Texel was fought in 1795—23 January—is commemorated with the story behind the word ice-legs, the ability to keep one’s balance on frozen ground. 

Head across to Amazon to open the Cabinet of Curiosities now, or read on for an exclusive taster of what the book has to offer.

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quaaltagh (n.) the first person you meet on New Year’s Day

Proving there really is a word for everything, your quaaltagh is the first person you meet on New Year’s Day morning. If you think that word doesn’t look even remotely English, you’re right: quaaltagh (pronounced ‘quoll-tukh’, with a rasping ‘gh’ like the sound in loch) was borrowed into English from Manx, the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, in the early nineteenth century. Its roots lie in a Manx verb, quaail, meaning “to meet” or “assemble”, as it originally referred to a group of festive entertainers who would come together to gambol from door to door at Christmas or New Year singing songs and reciting poems. For all their efforts, these quaaltagh entertainers would be invited inside for food and drink before moving on to the next house on their route.


If, as was often enough the case, all of that happened early on the morning of 1 January, then there was a good chance that the leader of the quaaltagh would be the first-footer of each household. As a result, a tradition soon emerged that the identity of the quaaltagh could have a bearing on the events of the year to come: dark-haired men were said to bring good luck, while fair-haired or fair-complexioned men (or, worst of all, fair-haired women) were said to bring bad luck—a curious superstition said to have its origins in the damage once wreaked by fair-haired Viking invaders.

Eventually, the tradition of door-to-door New Year Day gambolling disappeared (presumably because everyone is feeling far too delicate the morning after the night before), but the tradition of the quaaltagh being your luck-bringing first encounter on the morning of New Year’s Day, either inside or outside your house, has remained in place in the dictionary.


fedifragous (adj.) promise-breaking, oath-violating

If you made a New Year’s resolution only to ditch the gym for a box of chocolates or an afternoon in the pub on 2 January, then the word you might be looking for is fedifragous—a seventeenth century adjective describing anything or anyone that breaks an oath or promise, or reneges on an earlier agreement.

Fedifragous combines two Latin roots: foedus, meaning “treaty” or “contract”, and frangere, meaning “to break”. Foedus is a common ancestor of a clutch of more familiar words like confederate, federal and federation, while it is from frangere that the likes of fragment, fragile and fraction are all descended—as well as an entire vocabulary’s-worth of more obscure and equally broken words:


  • confraction (n.) a smashing or crushing, a breaking up into small pieces

  • effraction (n.) a burglary, a house-breaking

  • effractive (adj.) describing anything broken off something larger

  • irrefrangible (adj.) incapable of being broken

  • ossifragous (adj.) powerful enough to break bone


Along similar lines, ossifrage—literally “bone-breaker”—is an old name for the lammergeyer, an enormous mountain-dwelling eagle known for its habit of smashing bones by dropping them from a great height and then devouring the shards. And even the humble saxifrage plant can take its place on this list: its name derives from the Latin saxum, meaning “rock” or “stone”, and literally means “stone-breaker”. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder would have you believe that that refers to the plants’ supposed effectiveness in treating kidney stones, but alas it’s more likely a reference to the plant’s habit of growing in cracks and fissures in rocks.


eucatastrophe (n.) a sudden and unexpected event of good fortune

If a catastrophe is an unexpected disaster, then a eucatastrophe is its opposite: using the same positive-forming prefix found in words like euphoria and euphonious, JRR Tolkien coined the word eucatastrophe in 1944, defining it as “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears”.

As well as being the author of The Hobbit (1937) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–55), Tolkien—born on 3 January 1892—was a professor of English at Oxford University and an expert philologist and etymologist. Alongside his fiction, he compiled a dictionary of Middle English, completed his own translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, and following active service in the First World War, worked for a time on the very first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

As an expert in Germanic languages, Tolkien was tasked with researching a clutch of Germanic-origin words falling alphabetically between waggle and warlock at the OED—waistcoat, wake, walnut, wampum and wan among them. The verb want ended up being the longest entry he assembled (Tolkien eventually identified more than two dozen different definitions and sub-definitions of it), but oddly it was the walrus that proved the toughest etymological challenge.


Tolkien discovered that the walrus’ original and long-forgotten English name, morse, is entirely unrelated to the word we use today, while the name walrus itself represents a metathesized (that is, reordered) form of an Old Norse word, hrosshvalr, literally meaning “horse-whale”.


Why replace one word for the other? And why rearrange the Norse word we ended up using? No one is entirely sure. And, in fact, the word posed such a problem that Tolkien continued to study and lecture on its origins long after he left the OED in 1920.

© 2016-2020 Haggard Hawks

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