How perverse is it to taste a word that hasn’t been used in about 800 years and that includes a character that’s been out of use in English for half a millennium? That has two morphemes, one of which is not only no longer productive in English but is not even in use, and the other of which is obscure, untraced, and unseen eslewhere? How deliciously wanton is that?

Not half as deliciously wanton as including it in a modern dictionary.

Oh, but this is the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the most colossal lexicographic effort available in the English language. It is the output of senseless devotion, of a decades-long Bacchanale in the love-den of the language by the most unrestrained of word nerds. The life they led! And an unled life it was – they were not pulled around by others; they were drawn by their own fascination and linguistic concupiscence. They were esurient for words. When the objects are words through the ages, lust and gluttony, however untoward they may be, are not deadly sins but a waywardness that brings and preserves life in the language. They are prodigal in their promiscuity and promiscuous in their prodigality.

And so we have this word, sitting with the others in the Oxford English Dictionary, like an innocent in the crowd – an innocent wearing two large clogs and an enormous feather and nothing much else to speak of. Asked for its bona fides, its invitation, its affiliation, it has but two citations to show, both from the same book circa AD 1200, and not even spelled quite the same as it. Here’s one: “All þe flæshess kaggerrleȝȝc. & alle fule lusstess.” The usher squints at the cite, then at the word sitting there, and with a sigh hands back the credentials and moves on.

So what is it, kaggerleȝc? It’s pronounced like “cogger like” or “cogger lake” and is made of two bits, kagger and leȝc. The second bit is a suffix equivalent to modern ness; it was usually spelled laik but is seen in the Ormulum as leȝȝc. What is the Ormulum? It is a 12th-century work of Biblical exegesis, and it is a treasure for historical linguists because the author, rather than adhering to old standard spellings, developed his own phonetic spellings and wrote the work in strict meter, all for the purpose of ensuring priests’ ability to pronounce the vernacular appropriately. It thus helps us to know how English was pronounced at the time too.

The OED dropped the second ȝ, presumably because the Ormulum tended to double letters where they were normally singular. But it did not normalize the spelling to laik, perhaps because this word is a hapax legomenon (a one-off), and perhaps because at the time it was collected from the Ormulum its morphology was not understood.

And what is this great feather, this ȝ? It is yogh. It represented a voiced velar fricative. You know the Scottish or German ch as in ach? Just add some voice to that. But it could be weakened to a simple glide like “y.” It was eventually replaced with g and y and other respellings, but sometimes it was replaced with z because the cursive z looked a lot like it, and then that sometimes led to the pronunciation changing to “z.” Names that have this ȝ-to-z change include Mackenzie, Menzies (said “mingus”), and Dalziel (said “deal”). Such wayward carrying on!

And kagger? The context of the quote could help if you understand Middle English. The hints I’ve been carpet-bombing you with might also help. It meant ‘wanton’ – or anyway, that’s inferred; no one ever saw it by itself, only in these instances of kaggerleȝc. And kaggerleȝc means ‘wantonness’.

Wanton, by the way, is another word made of old bits that you can’t get in stores anymore. The wan is roughly equivalent to un as in undone. The ton is a past participle of tee, which means – meant, because who uses it now? – ‘draw, pull, lead’. So: Unled. Untoward. Froward (not forward).

And so this wanton use of dusty ancient lexis is a little self-referential note about the compilers’ wanton use of dusty ancient lexis. It’s like that old book on the shelf you have just because you have it. You keep it for special occasions, and then you pull it out and open it carefully and admire it, and wonder who first set eyes on it.

2 responses to “kaggerleȝc

  1. Before reading the entire post, my first association was the German word for cockroach, “Kakerlake”. Not entirely pleasing to the eye, but sounds pretty cool.

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