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Mind your language

The lost words of John Aubrey, from apricate to scobberlotcher

This amiable man had an adventurous vocabulary

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

Hilary Spurling found a certain blunting of the irregularities of John Aubrey’s language in Ruth Scurr’s vicarious autobiography of the amiable man (Books, 14 March). It is true that his vocabulary was adventurous, though I’m not convinced that his age (that of Thomas Browne too) was more neologistical than Chaucer’s, Shakespeare’s, Thackeray’s or our own.

Reading Aubrey (1626–97), we can overlook the Latinate words that have survived, and notice only those that did not catch on. One regrettable casualty was Aubrey’s apricate, ‘to bask in the sun’, from Latin apricari. This is not, as it happens, where we get the name apricot, which arrived in an etymological pass-the-parcel from Spanish albaricoque from Old Spanish albarcoque from Arabic al-burquq from Greek praikokion from Latin praecox.


Another word that for Aubrey connoted otium, ‘rest’, was delitescent, ‘hidden away’, entailing safety and rustication, as when he stayed delitescent with the Earl of Thanet at Hethefield, Kent, for nearly a year.

Aubrey’s Latinisms are not always high-sounding. He uses ignote for ‘unknown’; fautor for ‘patron’; supellex for ‘set of furniture’.

Aubrey likes ready-made Latin phrases: crambe bis cocta ‘cabbage twice seethed’, a variant of Juvenal’s crambe repetita; bonus socius, ‘a good fellow’; digitus Dei — a providential intervention showing that God will not be mocked, eg ‘Smyth of Smythcotes — Naboth’s vineyard — digitus Dei’: a lost short story in a memo to self. There are Italian phrases too: pian piano, ‘cautiously’; or bona roba, ‘good stuffe, that is a good wholesomeplum-cheeked wench’, as John Florio had disarmingly glossed it.

But many Aubreyisms are plain English: in a gogg-mire, ‘in inextricable difficulty’; harl ‘a knot of grass’; kim-kam ‘crooked, awry’; and scobberlotcher, perhaps a variant of scoterloper, ‘someone frisking like a lamb’, or of scoperloiter, ‘idler’. Scobberlotcher was among imprecations used against wayward undergraduates by Ralph Kettle, President of Trinity, as we remember from Roy Dotrice’s performance of Brief Lives. Aubrey certainly did relish the outlandish.


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