Thursday, October 01, 2009

Jolly Unpleasant...

From a 1930s photographic book about World War One.

What happened to the word frightful? I associate it with the Mitford sisters, Noel Coward and just about anyone in an Evelyn Waugh novel. It doesn't feature heavily (in other words I don't think it appears at all but I can't be bothered to do any research) in Victorian fiction, so where did frightful spring from?

And where did it go?

There is something endearing about the way English people of a certain class used to refer to deeply traumatic events as 'rather unpleasant', whilst an entirely trivial event could be 'frightful'. Behind these phrases lay a tacit acknowledgement that language was inadequate in the face of real tragedy.

Today, the public are 'devastated', 'gobsmacked' or 'gutted' when disaster strikes, but never bereft, distraught, anguished, disconsolate, wretched, racked, hopeless, inconsolable or grief-stricken. Ironically, in an age in which we feel freer than ever to express our emotions, the lexicon of gloom is sadly diminished.

6 comments:

Harry Tournemille said...

Hell of a post. Couldn't agree more.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think we just get bored. Some words get overused - who they hell says "spiffing" any more? - and they fade into disuse. Unfortunately as well as daft expressions sometimes very useful words get dragged along too. I have an old dictionary and it's like a foreign language the number of words that have fallen by the wayside. And there's another one - do we have waysides any more apart from in that expression?

analytics said...

My favourite recent example was that programnme when Jamie Oliver took a load of people and tested their fitness and life expectancy and one huge chap was told he only had three years to live. On being asked how it made him feel he replied:

"Obviously I'm gutted"

On another note:
You don't get much "Nosh" these days or "Grub" especially when connected with "Slap up"

Lucy Fishwife said...

I want to revive the use of "beastly", "wizard", and "beezer".

Art said...

I love words like that (and British understatement). Frightful is interesting because when it originally came into the language it meant timid and it has only meant shocking for the past 300 years or so.

Steerforth said...

I didn't know that, but it makes sense.

As far as bringing certain words back, I'd like to see the return of bounder, cad, rake and fiend. I also agree about wizard and beastly. I'm not so sure about spiffing and "What ho!".

Can we bring bowler hats back too?

The Jamie Oliver anecdote sums up the insipid self-pity that seems to have replaced stoicism and restraint.