Thursday, 24 April 2014

I wish to assert salvage claims on the following archaic English words

When I was 13 years old, the teachers in the English Department at my secondary school formed themselves into an ad hoc Bronte sisters-inspired death cult. They subsequently committed mass-suicide on the anniversary of the publication of Jane Eyre. This was a common occurrence in England at the time, and so no one was especially surprised. As had been the case with similar cults, which had sprung-up at other state comprehensive schools, their chosen method of suicide was TB bacilli, coated in lead and dusted with arsenic and powdered glass.

In the aftermath of the tragedy the board of governors resolved that no further English teachers would be hired by the school. Instead we were to be taught the subject by metal and wood work teachers, all of whom who were either staunch Methodists, or worshipped pagan deities whose province was thunder and lightning occurring in the skies over East Anglia, the ancient forests of Nottinghamshire, or the mountains of Wales.

Our class was placed under the supervision of Mr Havers – a man who would tutor me on topics as diverse as the recurring religious imagery contained within the work of the metaphysical poet George Herbert, and the over-arcing theme of gender identity in the William Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night. 

In applying himself to this task, Mr Havers would adopt the same straight-forward approach that he had previously employed when guiding me through the process of making a metal boot-scraper with the number of my house on it.

During his discourses upon the canon of English literature he would instinctively reach for those metaphors that reflected his true passion – that of crafting raw materials into objects that were pleasing both in form and function:

“Imagine that the English language is a big machine made out of words. Adjectives describe the dimensions and purpose of the machine. Verbs are the actions and processes that place these purposes in a proper context. Punctuation promotes the efficient action of the mechanism. Semi-colons and the accents common to foreign words are embellishments, reminiscent of the scroll-work and other fine detail that one typically finds adorning quality architecture. Over time some pieces fall off the machine. On other occasions, slightly overweight men with worn-down pencils lodged behind their ears, will gather around and debate whether a part on the machine is obsolete and either needs to be either modernised or removed entirely.”

Following this eulogy we were each given a copy of Howards End by E.M. Forster and instructed to liberally smother it in axle grease.

A year later Mr Havers took the entire third year on a school trip to The Nottingham Museum of Cast Iron. It was here I discovered that the English Language machine, that he had so vividly described in lessons, was not a metaphor at all, but an actual functioning device, powered by a waterwheel mounted on the exterior of the building; part of a permanent display at the far end of a long gallery of gleaming traction engines. It had been designed in 1842 by William Bollard. The following year Bollard and Hunt had manufactured seven of these colossal engines, although only one survives to this day.

Tragically, during the trip, 14 of my classmates, including Elizabeth – the only woman who has ever loved me - became trapped in a wing of the museum in which a display of 273 sepia photographs depicted the arduous construction of a small section of a canal in Bolton. All died of acute boredom before they could be rescued, despite being played Scooby Doo cartoons in an attempt to stimulate brain activity.

It was Mr Havers who inspired me to pursue my long career in salvaging obsolete words of the English language for profit. This archaic verbiage is either melted down and sold for scrap, or given slightly new, or altogether different, meanings and then placed back into common use.

There is also a growing market for letters taken from old words that have been broken down for spare parts. Although we think of recycling as a modern phenomena, the practice dates back to the formation of the United States of America, when the abbreviation 'USA' was written so frequently that there was, for a while, a serious national shortage of the letter 'u.' This was resolved in the short-term by the cannibalisation of 'u's from words such as 'colour.'

Even through the 'u' shortage is a thing of the distant past, with vast quantities of the letter being imported from China to the United States, the practice of incorrectly spelling certain English words carries on to this day.

Occasionally a word is either abandoned in the wilderness, or is lost entirely, usually in tragic circumstances, and has to be relocated. When this happens it becomes subject to salvage laws and can be claimed by people like myself.

Bearing this in mind I wish to publicly assert salvage claims on the following archaic words of the English language:


In halcyon days gone by (which in geological chronology occurred not long after the days of yore) the word 'betimes' was associated with extreme punctuality – the act of arriving for an appointment with plenty of time to spare.

The descendants of the man who invented the word recently contacted me by letter, begging me to preserve its original meaning. I responded to their communiqué through my team of lawyers, reminding them that if their grandfather had been a better Whist player, they would still own the word and could do with it as they pleased.

It is my intention to re-brand 'betimes' as a hip youth term for bedtime. I envisage it being used in conversations similar, if not identical, to the one below:

5-Year-Old (One): “A'ight blood. You scoping Tikkabilla laterz?

5-Year-Old (Two): “Can't bro. The 'rents set betimes at five-o dead.”

5-Year-Old (One): “That's harsh dog.”


I discovered 'Asunder' covered in dust and cobwebs, lodged securely under a church pew in Norfolk. The last three letters were thickly coated in eggshell-white emulsion. It took quite a bit effort to remove it.

The incumbent vicar recalled the word being used as a doorstop throughout the 1980s, and later by some visiting builders to stir paint. Not realising its true worth he agreed to sell it to me for the sum of £20.

Since then the church, having realised their mistake, has asked me whether I wouldn't mind returning the word, as it is still used in some of the older hymns. I would have been more than happy to do so, had they not refused to refund my £20. I have now opted to retain ownership of the word and have offered to licence it to the church for use in worship.

Things have escalated from there. I recently received a letter informing me that I will go to hell if I do not return 'asunder' to its rightful former owners.

The joke is one them, as I am already going to hell for killing all those postmen and burying their remains under the floorboards of my home.


The word “Verily” retired from public life in 1930, although it continued to appear at private functions right up until the beginning of the Second World War.

In 1941, it announced that it would be withdrawing to an isolated Greek monastery, where it would spend the remainder of its time on earth in silent contemplation of spiritual matters.

Despite the hostilities that were raging across Europe and Africa, it unwisely chose to make the journey by air, taking off in the dead of night from an aerodrome just outside Oxford. A few hundred miles from its destination the plane was mistaken by allied forces for an enemy bomber and shot down over the Ionian sea.

The wreckage currently rests in shallow waters, close to the Greek town of Parga. Ownership of the plane and its contents is disputed and will be decided by an upcoming hearing in the European courts.

Unfortunately, even after proprietorship has been determined, 'Verily' cannot be raised from the seabed, as the 'e' has become the home of a rare, extremely long-lived, and notoriously sedentary species of octopus, whose well-being and habitat are protected under international laws and treaties.

It will therefore be many centuries before my descendants can retrieve the word. Even then it is likely that they will be forced to do battle with the notoriously well-armed Greek coastguard.


An archaic word for an alarm bell. I plan to refurbish it and sell it on to a rap, grime, or graffiti artist - one who is looking for unusual spelling of the word 'Toxin' to use as a moniker.


Saturnism was once a poetic term for lead poisoning. With a word so obtuse and so unlikely to return to common use, the temptation is to melt it down. I have opted to take a longer view and have stored it in an air-tight safety deposit box in a Swiss bank.

I am gambling on a future where humans will one day colonise the planet of Saturn and develop a pro-Saturn outlook, at which point 'Saturnism' will come back into fashion, albeit with a dramatically altered meaning. When this happens my descendants have been instructed to thaw-out my frozen brain and lovingly place it within the cold unfeeling metal body of a 20-foot-tall clawed robot, so that I can resume my former duties as Managing Director of my word-salvaging company.


Zounds has recently been co-opted by fans of the Steampunk genre of science fiction as a means of expressing surprise. These poseurs, with their clockwork waistcoats, are using the word illegally on the flimsy pretence that, by adding an exclamation mark to the end, they are exempt from making royalty payments to me. I contest these claims with the counter-argument that the exclamation mark is implied by the word itself and is therefore superfluous.

If I catch anyone using 'zounds' without my written permission (and I'm looking at you Trevor) I will slap the coal-powered monocle out from under the brim of their ridiculous stove pipe hat.

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