Some Words have a ‘sell by date’?

The Poet died last month, and now the world which had been somewhat slow in honouring his living brow. 
From A Vision of Poets: Conclusion by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861) an English poet. 
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

I love language, learning about the history of words and where they came from. How the words have developed over the years, and when they entered into common usage in our language. I understand that some words go out of style or are no longer relevant in our high-tech modern world. As writers we need to keep up with the ever changing use of words. If you’re an historical writer, it’s important to be aware of when changes occurred to our language, if you want to keep your characters speaking within the right time line you have set them.

In the mid-1950s according to my Reader’s Digest, The Right Word at the Right Time. Professor Alan Ross, a British linguist and sociologist studied the language used in Britain by the Upper Class and the Non-Upper class. He found mark differences in their vocabulary as well as their pronunciation. Here’s a few:

Upper Class: False Teeth Non-Upper Class: Dentures Upper: To have my bath Non-Upper: To take a bath

Upper: Lavatory Non-Upper: Toilet Upper: my wife Non-Upper: the wife Upper: Napkin Non-Upper: Serviette

Upper: Scent Non-Upper: perfume Upper: Rich Non-Upper: wealthy

I found the differences between the two vocabularies quite striking. Reading the article in the book also explained why there was two words for the same things in the British language too.

Take the word Lavatory: Middle English: from late Latin lavatorium ‘place for washing’, from Latin lavare ‘to wash’.

Toilet: The word came from French toilette ‘cloth, wrapper’. In 16th-century English a toilet was originally a cloth for wrapping clothes, then a cloth cover for a dressing table and then the word meant the articles used in dressing. Eventually the word became the process of dressing and washing oneself. In the 19th century, toilet came to denote a dressing room with washing facilities. The modern meaning of ‘lavatory’ arose in the early 20th century.

I hope you enjoy the next instalment of my time as a mature student at a local college in 2006.

Day 9 of 32: ‘Unbeknown’ to me, some words have a sell by date.

At what point do you have to reach before you can say enough is enough?
I wanted to scream, “Call yourself a teacher!”

This week was all about paragraphs. Mr C handed out his usual collection of BBC worksheets to the class of six, plus one classroom assistant for the student who didn’t turn up yet again. Mr C sat down in his chair and raced through the worksheets, reading out bits and pieces with his amazing speed and interjecting comments.

“Well, you don’t need to know that! You need to order your mind! Don’t start every sentence with the same word!” After a few minutes of his interjections, he said “Well, we got through that quite quickly, didn’t we?”

I sat waiting for him to talk about the short story; he had set for the class last week. When he finally got round to asking about them. You can guess what happened.  Yeah, Ms Goody Two Shoes here was the only one to have completed her homework. However, two of my fellow students said they hadn’t quite finished theirs. Not that it really mattered as Mr C said nothing more about whether he wanted to see them or not.  

The task we were set was to write a 200 to 300 word short story. You needed to set a scene of a woman walking into a room. She stands still for a few moments before crossing to the fireplace. She looks at a picture over the fireplace for a few moments before making a phone call.

Photo by Jou00e3o Gustavo Rezende on

Here’s my attempt: The Room.

The room was perfect. The woman had spent all morning cleaning until everything gleamed and the sweet smell of polish filled the air. In the marble fireplace, the flames danced to unheard music, casting shadows around the room.
The woman entered.  She shivered and went straight to the fire. She picked up the poker and tried to entice the flames to ignite the untouched wood. The firelight highlighted the fine lines around her eyes. The late nights and worry showed like uninvited guests on the once perfect face.

As she straightened, she wiped her face, and left an unbeknown black smudge across her cheek. For a moment, she watched the fire with disinterest, her mind on other things. She looked up at the painting above the fireplace.  It stared back at her with arrogance.

“Why, tell me why,” she shouted, shattering the quietness of the room. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and clenched her fists to her breast allowing the anger to subside.

“Where are you when I need you?”

Her body trembled as she picked up a small vase and held it to her breast. In a low whisper she said, “You promised me. It would never happen again.”

She stared at the cat’s-eye coloured vase and studied it before looking up at the painting. He smiled down at her; daring her to. With a defiant look, she stared back at him. On hearing the low trill of a mobile phone, she placed the vase carefully back down and left the room.

Photo by Pixabay on

This week Mr C has given us part two of the story to try. We have to introduce a second character, but he told the class they don’t need to do it, if they don’t want to. Therefore, I guess I’ll be the only one who will.

When they all disappeared for a smoke break, I asked the classroom assistant, if she would like to read my short story. I wanted someone to read it as I had taken the trouble to do the homework. I found her far more helpful than Mr C and she even said, I wrote like a real writer. I thanked her. Wow me, a real writer.
The classroom assistant also told me, she was trying to get Mr C to move one of the students out of our class. Motorbike Dave didn’t enjoy reading and was having problems with writing and a hard time learning how to spell. She works in another class, where she was helping another man about the same age as Motorbike Dave, who was having the same problems. She said Dave could help himself a lot more if he took the time to read more often.

Once the class had returned from their break, Mr C spoke to us about spelling. He gave us more or less the same list of words last week. Again, we talked about how to spell certain words. He talked about the fact that certain words like ‘disappoint’ has two ‘p‘s’ in it and it took him until he was 25 years old to be able to spell it correctly. He said “Why does ‘Embarrass’ have two ‘r‘s’ and two ‘s‘s’ in it.

One of the Portuguese lads asked him if you dropped one of the ‘s‘s’ when you spelt the word Embarrassment. Mr C said he didn’t know.

I thought you didn’t, but as my spelling is quite weak, I checked in my dictionary. I told Mr C that you didn’t drop any letters and just added ‘m.e.n.t’

“There you go; you just add ‘ment’ class,” he said sarcastically.

Ms 40’something said she got confused by ‘Th’ as to her it sounded like an ‘F’. The Portuguese lads both nodded in agreement saying they too found the sounds of certain letters confusing too.

I told them in the beginning of my dictionary there was a key to the pronunciations, which explained the different sounds certain letters made in the words.

Mr C said he hadn’t known you could find a key to the pronunciations in dictionaries. I went on to explain to the two lads, if there was a mark that appeared over a letter the stress was then put on that letter.

Dear Reader, if I have made a mistake in giving that advice, then I can’t be doing any worse than our teacher, Mr C.

Two other things Mr C told us this week. That he once worked as a reporter on a newspaper and enjoyed working there, though the newspaper now no longer exists. Two, he had a lady in his class who couldn’t write a word when she first came, by the end of the course, she could write three pages.

I did wonder if she was so exasperated by the quality of the lessons, she wrote a three page letter of complaint to the college.

When Mr C finally looked at the short story I wrote for his class he said he thought the word ‘Unbeknown’ was an old-fashioned word and I shouldn’t use it. He also commented on my short story I had written for a competition in my local newspaper, which he had asked to see, without even reading it through completely. I told him I felt he couldn’t really comment on it until he had read it first.

Dear Reader, I also asked him if he felt I was unsuitable for the class as motorbike Dave was at one end of the spectrum while I was at the other end. While the rest of the class was in the middle somewhere. I felt it was unfair on me to expect him to spend any time with me when the rest of the class needed his help.

“Well, I feel you could still learn a lot from my class,” he said, “and I could set you up different pieces of work to do in the classroom.”

Oh great, this is just what happened to me at school I was left working from books. I wanted to be able to put up my hand and say could you explain that again to me. To me there is nothing quite like talking to someone who wants to get the best out of you. Who wants to teach you and to know you fully understand what they are teaching you.

And this is nothing like it.

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