From respair to cacklefart – the joy of reclaiming long-lost positive words

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them”: words of positivity from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. But how many of us really dwell on the upside of life, as opposed to its mad, bad, seamy side? It’s unsurprising that we have lost some of our joie de vivre in the past few years – finding sparkle amid the grey has become distinctly difficult. But a riffle through a historical dictionary suggests that it’s always been this way, and at heart we’ve long been a pessimistic lot. Linguistically, as in life, our glass is usually half-empty.

Usually – but not always. In recent times I’ve made it a mission to highlight a category of English that linguists fondly call “orphaned negatives”. These are the words that inexplicably lost their mojo at some point in the past, becoming a sorry crew of adjectives that includes unkempt, unruly, disgruntled, unwieldy and inept. Yet previous generations had the potential to be kempt, ruly, wieldy, ept and – most recently thanks to PG Wodehouse – gruntled. Some were even full of ruth (compassion), feck (initiative) and gorm (due care and attention). Now is surely the time to reunite these long-lost couples. It may not work for everything – there is no entry (yet) for “shevelled” or “combobulated”, but Mitchell airport in Milwaukee has gloriously provided its passengers with a “recombobulation area” in which to release some of the tension of air travel.

It’s not just these negatives that have been lost. The German schadenfreude – pleasure in the misfortunes of others – is now all too familiar. But how many of us know its near opposite in English, “confelicity”, which is joy in another person’s happiness? As we exchange hatred on our screens, how about sharing some “fellowfeeling”, 16th-century speak for kindness and compassion?

As always, the dictionary tells its own story. It offers hundreds of words for melancholy, from the “black dog” and “blue devils” to the cuddlier but equally dispiriting “mubble-fubbles”. Much the same goes for irritability – we can be curmudgeonly, mumpish, crumpsy, nettlish, porcupinal and spleenical as well as just plain narky or tetchy. And insults abound – anyone looking to criticise covertly may well enjoy “ultracrepidarian” or “cacafuego” (one who loves to pass comment on subjects they know nothing about and a blustering braggart – literally a “fire-shitter” – respectively). Distinctly lacking are synonyms for love, happiness and kindness.

But if we are pessimists at heart, it has never stopped us having a laugh. Some of our happiest words are such because they make us smile, and often involve a bit of fun at our own expense. Who can resist such nicknames as “cacklefarts” for eggs, or “bags of mystery” for sausages (because you never quite know what’s in them)? Even the prudish Victorians knew hankies as “snottingers”, and umbrellas as “bumbershoots”.

Moreover, perhaps it isn’t all down to our attitude. Some linguists believe the geography of a language shapes its sounds, and those sounds in turn influence our thoughts. The soft, sibilant lilts of the Mediterranean, for example, may seem a perfect match for its sun-soaked skies. The waterfalls and crashing pines of northern climes, on the other hand, may have led to what the 19th-century sound symbolist Charles Nodier described as our “raw and clashing vocabularies”. It follows, perhaps, that our thinking is just as clashing and discordant as a result.

It’s true too that other languages dish out positivity a little better than us. They have a splash of what the Italians call sprezzatura, a careless, thrown together nonchalance or indifference to life’s curveballs. As for joy, it would be hard to beat gigil from the Philippines. In a single word it conveys the “irresistible desire to squeeze something cute”.

But one English word surely stands above all others from the corners of the dictionary. I mention it all the time, because I’m determined to bring it back. Or bring it anywhere in fact, for it never really enjoyed more than a day in the sun. “Respair” has just one record next to it in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1525, but its definition is sublime. Respair is fresh hope; a recovery from despair. May 2022 finally be its moment.

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