Book review: The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones

He’s done it again.

On the heels of his delightful Accidental Dictionary, Paul Anthony Jones—the word-grubbing mastermind behind the wildly popular @HaggardHawks online–is out with another collection of weird and wonderful words. This one’s called A Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words (Elliott & Thompson, 2017). The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.

This compendium truly lives up to its name. Cracking open its beautifully crafted aged-teal and gilded cover is like peeking into an old, mysterious cabinet—a Wunderkammer (June 7, “a collection of oddities”) tucked away at the back of an antique shop, eccentric museum, or attic. On each day of his yearbook, Jones treats you to an unusual word, like some curio of yore, and in each entry, he dusts it off and holds it up to the light, telling a story about the word.

Cabinet Cover PC.indd
(Elliott & Thompson)

Inside, you’ll find the likes of curfuggle (June 9, “a confused mess; disorder, disarray”), ucalgeon (September 2, “a neighbour whose house is one fire”), ambivaleous (September 3, “equally clumsy in both hands”), and scurryfunge (December 15, “to hastily tidy a house”).

But more so than his previous books, Jones isn’t just telling a story about the word itself, about its origins and development. As he holds up each word, he uses the word to catch the light and illuminate some other fascinating bit of history or trivia, often corresponding to the date of the entry. Take April 14’s word, bucklebuster, “a line in a play that elicits a laugh from an audience.” April 14 is also the date in 1865 when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln he was attending a performance of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theatre. What you may not know, though, is that Booth chose to fire his fateful shot at the play’s bucklebuster, when everybody would be laughing: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!”

The book’s conceit is brilliant, the writing is crisp, and the tales are well-chosen and captivating. Even the little keys delicately illustrated atop each page are a lovely touch. But Jones never loses sight of the charm—the magic—of strange and forgotten words. Like quaaltagh (January 1, “the first person you meet on New Year’s Day) or, devilishly following, fedifragous (January 2, “promise-breaking, oath-violating”).

Whether you read through the book day by day or, if you’re like me and you can’t help yourself, rummaging around the cabinet regardless of the calendar, The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities will surely transport you to another time.

Enjoy today’s entry, October 28, perhaps a bit cruel on the weekend before Halloween:

Rechabite (n.) a person who abstains from alcohol

According to the Old Testament, the Rechabites were a nomadic clan descended from a strict Israelite figurehead named Rechab, who lived sometime in the mid ninth century BC. Rechab’s followers were prohibited from living in houses and towns, forbidden to practise agriculture and cultivate the land, and were obliged to follow a total abstinence from alcohol. As the prophet Jeremiah explained:

I set before the sons of the house of the Rechabites pots full of wine, and cups, and I said unto them, “Drink ye wine.” But they say, “We will drink no wine: for Jonadab, the son of Rechab our father, commanded us, saying, “Ye shall drink no wine, neither ye, nor your sons for ever.”

By the seventeenth century, this biblical account of the Rechabites’ strictly teetotal lifestyle had led to their name becoming a byword for anyone who followed an equally strict lifestyle of abstinence.

The word remained in relative obscurity until 1835, when the Independent Order of Rechabites was founded on the back of the burgeoning temperance movement. Members of the Order met in lodges known as “tents” (a reference to the Rechabites’ nomadic existence and avoidance of towns) and were obliged to take a pledge resolving to completely abstain from alcohol. Rechabite organisations were soon emerging all over the world: founded in 1842, America’s Independent Order of Rechabites boasted almost a million members by the century of the century – just in time for the National Prohibition Act to be enacted in the United States on 28 October 1919.

The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words
By Paul Anthony Jones.
376pp. Elliott & Thompson. £14.99.

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2 thoughts on “Book review: The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones

  1. How do you buy it if you live in the United States? I’ve noticed that books listing a pounds sterling price don’t have a conversion chart. But that means it’ll be even more in the US bc dollars come out higher than pounds. I tried to get books written in British English by J.K Rowling and couldn’t even do that. I’m so Internet-challenged sometimes…too bad I tried teaching myself how to be online. I’m not self-taught. My learning style is best suited to watching someone do it, listening to them explain while they’re at it and then trying it myself.
    That’s how I learned as a paramedic after I went to Paramedic School. The Internship is where I did hands-on learning, under the guidance of doctors, many of whom weren’t the least BIT patient.
    Even another doctor, who got his degree at Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons thought that some doctors “took getting used to how they talk to you.” He said some of them talked to him that way when he was in Residency,
    I think they call my learning style tactile learner. I have to actually do it with someone who’s an expert at it helping me. That’s why I ask my friend, the lexicographer, so many questions. When he’s in a good mood, which is almost always, he’s more than happy to answer them.
    I don’t imagine it would be easy to maintain a cheery attitude when you’re going through what he has for the past month..
    It’s really hard sometimes to find cheerful people online, especially on You Tube.
    You can tell I like words bc I talk so freely.


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