Does shrift come in any size but short?

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Continuing our occasional series of PEOPLE WITH VERY UNUSUAL JOBS INDEED: 82:- A Man who runs a Rare Words Farm

Continuing our occasional series of PEOPLE WITH VERY UNUSUAL JOBS INDEED: 82:- A Man who runs a Rare Words Farm

"People have rare breeds farms, where they preserve unusual and historic animals," says Guy Bladwell, "so why not a similar place for words under threat ?"

Guy runs his rare words farm just off the Tottenham Court Road. (As there are no animals involved, it's hardly worth going to the country.) He is devoted to saving words which are in danger of becoming extinct, and trying to persuade writers to use them again.

"Anthony Burgess was wonderful to us," says Guy. "I would send him a list of a few dozen words that nobody seemed to use any more, and he would put them all in his next novel. Perhaps that wasn't the right way to tackle the problem, as none of his readers can have known what the words meant, and not many people would bother to look them up. Certainly, although he kindly used words like 'brewis' and 'supinate' for us, they never caught on again, which is a shame."

What do they actually mean ?

"I've forgotten what 'brewis' means, but 'supinate' means to turn something upwards. If you supinate your hand, you're turning the palm upwards. When people lie 'supine', they're not just lying flat - they're lying on their back, with the front upwards. It's the opposite of 'prone'.

"I'm not the only one concerned about the extinction of rare words. On that Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth they're running a feature in which listeners nominate words they think have gone dead. The last one I heard, they nominated 'gremlins' and 'frogman'. I was a bit shocked. I thought they were still current. I still use them. But then, I use so many words which other people think have fallen into desuetude. There's one, I guess. Desuetude."

Guy reckons that when a word has outlived its usefulness, it may be too late to revive it.

"It's probably no use, for instance, trying to get golfers to use the old names for their clubs again. Mashie, niblick, cleek, etc. Great names, but it's all number 6's and 7's now. Our main hope is in focusing on single-use words, and trying to expand their use."

What are single-use words?

"Words which survive in one context only. Like 'short shrift'. You never hear of any other kind of shrift. Like 'fine fettle', like 'gory locks', like 'damsel in distress'..."

You mean, if a damsel is not in distress, she is not a damsel?

"Exactly! Now, wouldn't it be nice if the word 'damsel' came back without dragging 'distress' in its train all the time? If girls could just be damsels?"

Another refuge for words is in quotations.

"Oh, yes! Quite a lot of words live on only because they form part of a familiar quote. 'Wot', for instance, as in 'A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot'. Or that wine mentioned by Keats, 'the blushful Hippocrene'. Or the word 'grail', which is only kept alive by 'The Holy Grail'."

How does Guy Bladwell set about his work? Just writing to authors?

"Oh, no. You have to write to everyone. One little victory we had was in persuading that chain of shoe shops to name itself after the old plural of shoes: Shoon. Hasn't done it any harm! It may even have got one or two people to use the word!

"Sometimes we get writers to rescue a word before it goes down the drain. At the moment we're fighting for 'coruscate', which means to sparkle brilliantly, even though people are beginning to use it to mean to erupt angrily, probably because they mix it up with 'corrosive' ... That's got to be stopped!"

And only this morning, through the post, I got a letter from Guy Bladwell saying: "Just remembered! 'Brewis' is a dialect word meaning 'a chunk of bread dipped in soup of broth'. Use it in your column, would you?"

I'll do my best.