Lexicographer and TV personality Susie Dent recently embarked on a curious, self-appointed mission. She is determined to bring the word “respair”, last used around 1525, back into common usage.
“Respair”, Dent explains, means “fresh hope; a recovery from despair”. To her mind, the English language has something of a pessimistic bent. It tends to retain the negativity of various words, but not their more positive counterparts. For instance, we say “unkempt”, but have forgotten that “kempt” was once an adjective too.
Words fall out of use for all sorts of reasons. Some are ousted by words with similar meanings. We no longer use the Old English verb niman but have instead adopted the Viking equivalent, “take”.
Others represent a concept, an object or a stylistic trend that has lost its relevance. “Butter” and its variant, “butteris”, were used to refer to a tool for trimming the hooves of a horse before shoeing, which is not something many people do anymore.
There is a direct relationship between a language and the society that uses it. Our needs, beliefs and history are fundamental principles that shape language. Lexicographers have shown that the pandemic has led to an explosion of new words and phrases, including “Blursday” and “covidiot”.
Given the uncertainty and stresses COVID-19 continues to inflict, we might take Dent’s lead and seek out further words to bring back in order to lift people’s spirits. Here are five terms recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary which are connected, in different ways, with the importance of appreciating and loving oneself, one another and life in general.
Adamate: to love very much
This verb is formed on the root of the Latin verb amare, which means “to love”. There is evidence of its use by dramatists in the 17th century.
Amare is also represented by the French word amant, which means “lover” and is now mainly used in English in connection with adulterous relationships. While it is difficult to establish exactly why “adamate” did not become popular, the more negative associations of the French loan might have played a role.
Autometry: self-measurement, self-estimation
Although still used in mathematics, in connection with measuring the dimensions of something, I am interested here in a single use of “autometry” by the poet Robert Southey. In his 1829 book, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, which details imaginary conversations between the author and the social philosopher Thomas More. Southey uses “autometry” to refer to the significance of one’s own judgement: “You judge of others by yourselves,” he writes, “and therefore measure them by an erroneous standard whenever your autometry is false.”
Southey might have actually coined the word himself. He apparently used it about 50 years earlier than anyone else, and in keeping with his belief in the importance of the individual and, hence, of justice and equality. At a time when we are all so worried about how we are perceived by others, often through our social media accounts, we’d do well to practise autometry in Southey’s sense more often.
Biophilia: love of life
This word is probably best known as the title of Icelandic singer Björk’s seventh studio album. “Biophilia” and its counterpart “necrophilia” were coined in the 19th century as technical terms in psychology. The popularity of the term “necrophilia” and its increasing association with deviant sexual practices have been boosted by a number of high-profile criminal cases.
“Biophilia”, by contrast, has remained fairly restricted to technical discussions in psychoanalysis. Nonetheless, its literal meaning – the love of life – suggests a broader human need or desire to connect with nature and living things.
Collachrymate: to weep together
COVID has of course seen physical proximity severely restricted. In this context, this verb, which represents a physical expression of sympathy, is particularly resonant.
“Adamate” and “collachrymate” are two examples of words borrowed directly from Latin (respectively, adamare and collacrimari) or coined on the basis of Latin roots during the 16th and 17th centuries in an attempt to increase the expressiveness and beauty of English.
While some of these terms are still in use today (“abdominal”, “abrupt”, “accurate”), most had a very limited lifespan. To a large extent this was because enriching the language in this way was not to everyone’s taste. Others thought that these terms hindered understanding and that English could rely on its own words to express similar meanings. Why say latrate (the Latin word which describes the sound a dog makes) when you could just say bark?
Mesology: the science of achieving happiness
This noun has been in use in scientific texts since the end of the 19th century. It probably comes from the French word, mésologie, which refers to the study of the relationship between an organism and its environment.
However, we also find the term earlier, around 1830, in the writings of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in what might well be an instance of an ad hoc coinage. He defines “mesology” as the scientific enquiry or branch of logic that deals with the means of attaining happiness.
Bentham was particularly interested in establishing how social institutions could help as many people as possible to achieve happiness. Although some of his suggestions are as problematic as they are unworkable (for example, how can you calculate amounts of happiness?), imagining mesology in today’s school curriculum alongside biology is an intriguing proposition.
The words we use can help us establish how we think about and understand our emotions. The expressions “letting off steam” or “my blood is boiling”, suggest, for example, that we associate anger with heat and, in particular, a boiling liquid. But words can trigger emotions too. So breathing new life into hope-giving words might help to cultivate happiness and a sense of wellbeing.