Word of the day – purfle

Purfle is a very handy word that means “to decorate the surface of a violin”.

I came across it today in an article about the completion and publication after 45 years of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary – the first historical thesaurus in the world in any language. The Thesaurus sorts words by date and meaning into more than 236,000 categories and subcategories, and the oldest words date back to about 700 AD.

Interesting discoveries include 265 ways to say ‘immediately’, multiple Anglo-Saxon words for diseases of the feet, as well as all sorts of words for stupid people, including medwis, modigleas, samwis, ungerad and stuntlic from the time of King Alfred (849-899); dumpish, dorbellical and grout-headed from Shakespeare’s time; and numskulled, born-muzzy, ram-headed and chuckleheaded from the late 18th / early 19th century.

This entry was posted in English, Language, Words and phrases.

13 Responses to Word of the day – purfle

  1. jdotjdot89 says:

    I really like this post. To this day, I’m the only person I know who’s ever sat down and actually read a historical thesaurus (or “etymology dictionary”, as I’ve heard it called in the US) from cover to cover just for kicks.

  2. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Samwis and its friend hæmfast (if I’ve remembered the spelling correctly) are of course familiar to anyone who’s read J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation notes in the very last appendix to The Lord of the Rings.

    Seriously, even if you’re not interested in reading the whole trilogy, it’s worth it to go find the copy at your local library and read that bit; it’s the best essay on the process of translating literature that I’ve ever read, regardless of the fact that it’s about translating a book that doesn’t exist.

  3. Magnus says:

    I was aware that the decorative inlay round the edge of a violin is called purfling, but I’ve never before heard the verb “purfle”.

    I shall have to see if I can slip it into a conversation sometime this week.

  4. formiko says:

    If I happen to see a violin, I’ll say to the owner “I like how that baby’s been purfled” 🙂

  5. Christopher Miller says:

    We should really resurrect some of these words and bring them back into the modern language. So much of the magic of Tolkien’s writings sprung from the way he reached back into Old English for his word-hoard (nice alternative to “vocabulary”, no?) and for the names of people and places. Eowyn = Horse-friend = Philippa. The Trollshaws: shaw = a wood (like Danish/Norwegian skov, skog). Shadowfax – shadow-hair. Mitchel Delving = Big Dig (mitchel like muckle in the Scots “mony a mickle maks a muckle”). Mirkwood. And on and on…

  6. Jim Morrison says:

    Some of my friends who were in the British military used to call stupid people ram-heads. I have never heard anyone else using it. They seemed to have a certain lexicon of words that was passed down through the generations of squaddies and this word was part of it. Also:
    Bergen = rucksack
    Pooch = pouch
    Square away = tidy
    Scran = food
    Ram-head = idiot


  7. Petréa Mitchell says:

    “Square away” is very common in US English. Mostly it’s in the form of things being “squared away”, meaning tidied up, taken care of.

  8. Christopher Miller says:

    I was about to say that for “squared away”, though I didn’t know it was only US/North American. A really interesting thing in Quebec Sign Language (unlike at least the most widely known varieties of American SIgn Language) is that the sign for ‘perfect’ is based on a metaphoric use of ‘square’. I can’t help wondering if the sign was borrowed from some regional variety of ASL where it might have developed on the basis of the English metaphor.

  9. TJ says:

    What if I wana decorate my piano or tin whistle?
    hmmm… I can’t think of anything! 🙂

  10. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Another thing about “squared away” is that I’ve never heard it used about physical things– it’s like the British talking about things being “sorted”. Is it used that way in the UK military?

  11. peter j. franke says:

    “Stuntlic” must be related to the present Dutch word “stuntelig” and means: feeble, shaky, infirm or clumsy. The endings in samwis and medwis are like “wijs” and “wiis” in Dutch and Frisian, wise in modern English. Onwijs in Dutch as well as unwiis in Frisian have the opposite meaning: being stupid, not in your right senses. The old English word “ungerad” has the same preposition, -un-, as in Frisian.

  12. Christopher Miller says:

    With my cat sitting snuggled beside me on my computer chair, “purrfull” comes to mind. With a different meaning, of course…

  13. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Okay, here’s the Tolkien passage I was thinking of. Let’s see if the blockquote tag works in comments…

    “… Sam and his father Ham were really called Ban and Ran. These were shortenings of Banazîr and Ranugad, originally nicknames, meaning ‘halfwise, simple’ and ‘stay-at-home’; but being words that had fallen out of colloquial use they remained as traditional names in certain families. I have therefore tried to preserve these features by using Samwise and Hamfast, modernizations of ancient English samwís and hámfoest which corresponded closely in meaning.”

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