My English teacher at school in Scotland, Mr Sylvester, was trying to get us interested in Chaucer one day, and someone in the class objected that it was a waste of time learning all these words which we would never be able to use.
"Oh, you never know when a word will come back," said Mr Sylvester. "Even words which you think have died out. When I first moved to Scotland, there was a knock on our door one day and an old woman who lived nearby stood there, holding out a house-warming present and saying, 'I've brought you a wee hansel'. Now, I knew from my studies that this was an ancient word meaning a welcoming present, but I thought it had died out years ago.
"I remember clasping her warmly and saying, 'Good God, woman, do you realise you're uttering words which better men than me thought were extinct!' She thought me odd."
There's something rather touching in that tale, and, I suppose, something equally touching in the fact that I can still remember it all these years later.
Another thing I remember from Mr Sylvester's lessons is that when Shakespeare used the word "kibe" he was referring to chilblains. I think that I keenly remember this word because as a child I used to suffer a lot from chilblains.
In cold weather the ends of my toes would sometimes swell and go bright red, and become intensely sensitive and itchy. The instinct was to scratch them, but this was quite the wrong thing to do, because if you broke the skin they got much worse. If you touched them even delicately the pain/pleasure was intense, and although I haven't had chilblains for many years I can still remember the feelings involved. (My mother once encountered a Scottish doctor who told her firmly that the best cure for chilblains was to apply the vinegar from a jar of pickled onions to the toes, as hot as I could bear. I can't remember if it worked, but I can vouch for the fact that it makes your socks smell like a fish and chip shop.)
Perhaps people don't get chilblains any more. I certainly haven't heard them mentioned for years. Mark you, people don't talk about their feet much, so it may be that I am friendly with chilblain sufferers, who just don't want to talk about it, but I have a feeling that chilblains have gone out of fashion as much as the word "kibe" has, and that if Mr Sylvester were teaching today, he would not only have to tell the class what "kibes" were but also explain what chilblains were.
Another illness that Shakespeare was very fond of was the "ague", which I assumed for years and years was some sort of fever that no longer existed, as modern doctors never mention it. I was duly amazed to find out the other day that it was another word for "malaria", which was quite common in the swampier parts of Britain in his day, as indeed it was in Rome and St Petersburg and other places which have been sited by wise city fathers on mosquito-ridden marshes. My father worked in Kenya for several years before the war, and had contracted malaria then, which occasionally came back in later years in the form of a mild fever.
"Your father won't be up today," my mother would say. "He's got a touch of the old malaria". How romantic I thought this sounded. I asked him once if he had any other diseases from his years in Africa which I could boast about at school, but he thought that anything else he had got had cleared up by now. "At least I never got blackwater fever," he said. "What's blackwater fever?" "It's when your pee turns black." "Gosh! What happens then?" "You die. There's no cure for it."
A reader writes: Is this going to get anywhere, Mr Kington?
Miles Kington writes: No. I am merely suffering a mild dose of nostalgia brought on by the cold weather. But at least I haven't offended any Sikhs, insulted the Welsh or mentioned David Blunkett.Reuse content