By Ruth Minshull
A live language is, of course, an ever-changing one. New words are coined; old words are hauled out of dusty corners and restored, others redefined. Jargon is lifted from technical fields and integrated into our vocabularies.
While new words and new usages enjoy their stint in the limelight, other words quietly die. There’s no particular reason for this—they are perfectly suitable words, but people simply stop using them. Finally the dictionaries omit them, and the words are virtually forgotten.
I like the idea of a vibrant, alive language. It’s a reflection of contemporary development, knowledge, thinking, products, our lifestyles. Now, there’s a contemporary word: lifestyles. Our ancestors probably didn’t need it. Unless they were wealthy, they simply worked and died. They had no time to “style” their lives.
We certainly need an evolving vocabulary to define our culture. But some of the old words die prematurely, while there is still plenty of use left in them.
Such a word is “smelfungus.” I discovered it in a thesaurus several years ago while searching for something else. What a rich, provocative word! It rambled off the tongue with a satisfying beat. I fell in love with it instantly.
But what did it mean? I couldn’t imagine, although I did get an image of my son’s moist socks as he kicked off his size 12 Reeboks.
It turned out that smelfungus was a noun meaning critic, fault-finder, carper.
My next question was: where on earth did it originate? I looked it up in Webster’s Third. Smelfungus, it seems, was the name of a fictional character in a book called A Sentimental Journey by British novelist Laurence Sterne, published in 1766.
Mr. Smelfungus was a hypercritical traveler journeying through France and Italy. The character was intended to satirize a Scottish novelist, Tobias Smollett, for his descriptions in a book called Travels through France and Italy, which had been published two years earlier. Critics of the time considered Smollett’s book entertaining, but spiteful and peevish. Laurence Sterne apparently agreed, and decided to do a little funning, so he wrote his book–and, for reasons that may never be known, coined the name Smelfungus.
Now, over 240 years later, the word is still in some dictionaries, but certainly among the endangered. Never in my life have I heard or seen the word in use. Furthermore, an informal poll of my friends has not yielded a single person familiar with it. I must conclude, therefore, that one of these days the lexicographers, in one of their periodic housecleanings, will say, “We don’t need this word anymore; no one is using it.” And they’ll throw it out—probably to make space for a new definition of “hopefully” (the one that 98% of the population is already using).
And that will be the end of a wonderful word.
I say, let’s not permit this to happen. Many people work industriously to save the whales, elephants, bald eagles, spotted shrew, all sorts of creatures, and plants from extinction. How about saving a word: smelfungus? I realize we would not be saving a life, but we could be saving some of life’s enjoyment.
This is a perfect cause for the basically lazy person, the reluctant joiner, the non-contributor. It needs no commitments, no dues, no meetings, no elections, no marches or slogan-bearing placards. It requires nothing more than a few seconds now and then–just time enough to drop the word into conversation, when fitting. That shouldn’t be too hard. We all know a few critical, carping people. (Smelfungi?)
So, with a minimum of exertion, we can delight in the satisfaction of knowing that we helped save an outstanding word from extinction. At the same time, we can spike our conversations with a little pizzazz.
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© 2009 by Ruth Minshull