For me, it is a matter of professional research, and I begin with the word patootie. As in sweet patootie. Patootie is a word you may have heard, or even used, though you probably heard it first that Christmas when the estranged husband of your aunt Mildred turned up unexpected at Thanksgiving when you were nine. It also may have been the first time you heard the word philanderer. It turned up in my childhood in a somewhat similar context, and for some reason I heard it the other day in my memory.
Generally, the context was, “You bet your sweet patootie.” As I remember it, the speaker was likely an uncle animated by spirits, perhaps at the gathering after a wake, having in mind a tippled aunt giving herself up to joyful song in the garden at the reception following a wedding.
There are words we hear today that have a flavorful ring to them and that we understand in their modern context. Booty, for example, which long ago meant pirates’ plunder and brought to mind Jim Hawkins, now lowlights the current frenzi for junk in the trunk. Captain Flint would never have used the word. Or, mosh, which today has to do with frenetic dancing that originated in the 1960s, as apparently almost everything else we endure today did. It may have sprung from Yiddish as mish-mash or mish-mosh, meaning a mess.
This isn’t to say that our boring, backward looking elders never trifled with the language. They certainly did. For instance there was a sort of uncle by marriage who was forever calling young women tomatoes. “She’s a nice little tomato,” he’d say in my ear, with a nudge. To be fair, he was a teetotaler and did not garden. Sometimes the tomato was a tamale, without further explanation.
Uncle’s tomato (or tamale) would probably be my Irish grandmother’s bold little thing. My grandmother, who often found her voice when that warbling sister of hers encouraged her, did not regard bold girls as admirable examples of liberated ambition. She thought they were dangerous, and she could spot one a mile off. They were inclined to make whoopee, she thought, which could get you into trouble. A flibbertigibbet could do the same thing, she believed.
She also knew frou-frou when she saw it. There is a word whose possibilities are staggering. I’ve heard, and if you are of a certain vintage, you may have heard “frou-frouing femininity,” first found in the 1905 edition of the English magazine Truth. Frou-frouing is everything my grandmother feared. It should not have been. It’s a perfectly innocent word that, like so many others, we ‘ve adapted as necessary, willy nilly, without consulting the linguisticians. We hear a sound, say, the rustling noise a girl’s dress makes when she walks, we make it a word that defines the sound so that we can tell someone else about it, and then we attach motive and sly ambition to it, and my grandmother adopts it as her own. That’s slanging words around.
“Slang,” John Moore wrote, “is a prodigal use of language; its bright baubles effervesce out of man’s invention, they take our fancy with their shimmer and sheen, but they are unstable, and very soon the changeable winds of fashion blow them away. The prigs and pedants who from time to time deplore some current piece of slang are wasting their breath; it is odds on any given word being forgotten in a season. But should a slang word by chance escape the common fate, then woe betide the pedant, for it will live to mock his memory.”
Have you ever encountered golldurnit? That was big in my youth, as in “Golldurnit, where did that dent in the car come from.” I began to hear it around my own house, out of the mouths of kids. “Golldurnit, not broccoli again.” The most prominent memory I have of that word employed in extremis was on the occasion of my sinking the family’s eight-foot pram by stumbling into it and onto my father while he sat in the stern seat. “Golldurnit boy,” he said as he sank slowly beneath the surface. “Look what you’ve done now.”
He had a fondness for nincompoop too, and that may have been employed on the same sort of occasion, or when you came home way later than you were suppose to, and crawling up the stairs you slowly became aware that someone was standing at the top. You began to explain, when you heard: “Stop the mumbo-jumbo, you nincompoop, I’ll talk to you in the morning.” Mumbo-jumbo, now that’s a word that ought to be in everyday use today.
And, there are so many more. You will remember mugwump, kowtow, kibosh, frabjous, gruntle, tomcatting, hanky-panky, harum-scarum, and hocus-pocus.
Most wonderful of all, there is huggle. This is a word for fathers, mothers, but especially lovers, who ought to be using daily. It is also a word which serves, in a variety of disguises, many functions. At heart, it is about affection. One is huggling when one is “imparadised in one another’s arms,” according to Milton. That’s a condition which my grandmother would have taken note of, and not quietly, you may be sure. “A-huggling they were, bold as brass,” one 16th century commentator wrote. Probably some earlier incarnation of granny.
Which leads me finally to hugger-mugger, one of the best old words I’ve come across. It is useful enough to deserve a prominent place in anyone’s everyday vocabulary. It means disorder or confusion, a natural outcome when one is huggling too often or too indiscriminately.