Mark Forsyth July 19, 2012
A nation's dictionaries reveals much about its current state, MARK FORSYTH writes
It's not often that the finer points of lexicography make it into the news. But this week it's happened twice: once via a Beijing publisher, and once at the top of a mountain in the Pyrenees.
On Sunday, somebody - nobody knows who - scattered the route of the Tour de France with sharp metal tacks. The result was 30 cyclists suffering punctures just before one of the most dangerous downhill stretches of the tour. The reigning champion, Cadel Evans, was delayed, and the current holder of the yellow jersey, Bradley Wiggins, decided to slow down, too, because he thought it just wouldn't be sporting to take advantage of such a thing.
The result was an outpouring of English words in the French press. Bradley is now ''le gentleman Wiggins'' and his sportsmanship is an example of ''le fair-play''. The implication is that being a decent chap is such a British concept that only the British could have a word for it.
It's easy - and fun - to get a bit carried away with such observations. A Briton might rather smugly note that there is a single French word - cinqasept - that means a visit to your mistress made in the late afternoon, and that that tells you all you need to know about Gallic morals. We can even point out that although the French do have the word gentilhomme, it was only introduced to the language in the late 18th century as a translation of the original English. However, it's a dangerous game for a Briton to play: a Frenchman might reply that the English have also given them le snob, le fast-food and le low-cost airline.
A much clearer revelation of society through language has happened in China this week, where they've published a new edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary with 3000 new words in it. These include fengkoufei (a bribe paid to a journalist to keep his mouth shut), Baijin Zhuyi (money worshipper) and fenqing (angry young nationalist).
Here you get a vivid portrait of modern China - its corruption, its wealth, its newly assertive foreign policy. And you do so because dictionaries can record societies in a way that historians cannot.
Few people read dictionaries cover to cover, and you get rather odd looks if you do. Lately, in the course of researching a new book on the lost words of the English language, I've been devouring them, and it's astonishing how much they can teach you about the lives of others.
For example, histories of World War II will tell you all about a soldier's experience of D-Day, but you must remember the old adage that war is 1 per cent terror and 99 per cent boredom. If you want to know what a soldier's life was really like in the '40s, pick up a dictionary of Services slang. Most of the words have nothing to do with fighting: they're to do with gossiping, making tea, and waiting around. There were furphies (gossip started in the lavatories), and elsan gen (gossip so obviously false it was fit only to be flushed down an Elsan lavatory). . Only very occasionally do you get even the faintest hint of death and glory.
Still, if it is death you want, you should turn to dictionaries of cant - the thieves' and highwaymen's slang of the 17th and 18th centuries. At a time when hanging was the punishment for even petty crime, highwaymen had a thousand euphemisms for the place they might end up. When the trapdoor opened they were left ''dancing on nothing'', a dawn execution was ''having a hearty-choke and caper sauce for breakfast'', where the caper again refers to the twitching feet of the hanged man. You also get fascinating glimpses into their sex lives: the number of terms and fine distinctions between different types of prostitute is enough to make a cinqasept seem positively tame.
Some of the words you find in old dialect dictionaries make you want to build a time machine and head straight off. Given the choice, I would emigrate to 19th-century Roxburgh, where they had a single word - sprunt - meaning to run after girls among the haystacks after dark. The idea of a place where that activity was so common that they needed a one-syllable word for it makes me feel that I was born too late.
Every old dialect dictionary contains a lost world, but it's never a paradisiacal Merrie England. There are rustic dances and moonlit coppices, but because it's a dictionary, these sit side by side with skin diseases that make you thank God for modern medicine.
That's why the Chinese have made a mistake in leaving out the term shengnu, or unmarried woman in her 30s. The editor's reasoning is sweet - he didn't want to be nasty to single ladies - but a lexicographer shouldn't pick and choose. Every dictionary is a record of a world, and it's a terrible shame to make that picture incomplete.
Of course, you can get carried away with an analysis like this. People like to say that there's no English equivalent of Schadenfreude, but there is: gloating. You need to indulge in a bit of fair play - or, as the French would call it, l'esprit sportif.
Mark Forsyth is the author of The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (Icon Books)
The Daily Telegraph, London