Dictionary Dinosaurs

I was not obsessed with dinosaurs as a young child, but I was definitely impressed with them. I remember seeing all the drawings in books and being astounded at how enormous and powerful they were. Since Mom and Dad, from my six-year-old perspective, also seemed huge and all-powerful, it was unsettling to know that dinosaurs had them beat by a mile on both counts. And I was wowed that dinosaurs roamed the earth a hundred years ago. Well, it turns out that it was closer to 164 million years ago, but to a kid, anything that happened before your grandparents were born was not just ancient but downright prehistoric. 

I was also amazed to hear that all the dinosaurs had died off and would never return. I am sure that “extinct” was one of the first sophisticated words in my childhood vocabulary. We studied these beasts in school around 1960, when smoking was beginning to come under fire for causing deaths from lung cancer. My teacher had a great sense of humor and, grinning widely, he suggested that perhaps smoking too many cigarettes caused the dinosaurs to go extinct! I still hold an image in my mind of a bunch of teenaged pterodactyls in leather jackets hanging out underneath the fronds of a gigantic palm tree, puffing away on Lucky Strikes before suddenly dropping dead in unison. 

Ten years later, in an otherwise deadly-dull Old English class in graduate school, I perked up when Professor Bland (who could have profited from the sense of humor of my elementary school teacher) handed out a list of “Top Ten Common Old English Words Now Extinct.” These were the dinosaurs of Merriam Webster. 

My third favorite was JARGOGLE. Let’s face it — it’s tough suppressing a tiny giggle when pronouncing this delightful verb —“jar-GAH-gull.” It meant “to confuse, to jumble up one’s thoughts.” It’s like “to bewilder” but more fun: “If I have to read just one more online post about how to make the best scrambled eggs, my mind will become hopelessly scrambled and jargogled.” 

In second place is SNOLLYGASTER. This noun described a type of individual whom  we Americans have had here since the first settlers landed in Jamestown in 1607. It meant “an unprincipled politician”: “You want me to cast my ballot for Millard Fillmore for President? I wouldn’t vote for that snollygaster if he ran for county dog-catcher.” (I would now give you a complete list of our current politicians who could easily run for office under the Snollygaster flag, but I know that none of you would put up with reading a five-thousand word essay). 

But my favorite extinct term is the verb BELEWE. Granted, it does not roll off the tongue with the same pizazz as “Jargogle” or “Snollygaster.” In fact, it is pronounced as “bel-LOO,” the same pronunciation as “Ballou” in “Cat Ballou,” the Lee Marvin-Jane Fonda movie that some of us Old-Timers fondly remember. Nor is its definition as interesting as that of my two other favorites. “Belewe” simply meant “to betray.” It was often found in poetry written by medieval courtly lovers who felt that their lady-fairs had “done ‘em dirty.” By the way, that last phrase is not Old English but originated in modern English country music. 

I thought of BELEWE this year on my birthday, when the Lord Above provided a solar eclipse for my celebration and made sure that my birth city, Indianapolis, was in the very narrow band where the eclipse was total. I swore a full year ahead that I would drive home for this rare celestial event. But I did not. I promised myself that I would go, but then I “belewed“ my vow by wimping out. I decided that I did not want to fight the crowds on the highway, which, I later heard, never even materialized. And, even worse, now I know the next such total solar eclipse won’t be for another long 20 years. 

As solace, I have decided that I shall enjoy a rare occurrence on May 31st, 2026, when there will be two full moons in a single month, which only happens about once every three years. And, even better, I hope to be alive and kicking in 2037 when there will be two full moons in each of two different months of the same year. Such an occurrence is so rare that it only happens four times in a century. 

When Old English astrologers of the fifth century wrote down the “rule” that only one full moon occurred per month, they were annoyed that the rule had exceptions. They felt the natural rhythm of the heavens had been “betrayed” by these occasional extra moons and therefore dubbed them “Belewe Moons,” which then became our modern “Blue Moons.”

And so BELEWE is my favorite extinct word because when it died as a verb, it then cleverly resurrected itself in modern English as a lovely, lunar adjective. 

In keeping with the 1960s and Old-Timers theme, please click to hear something cheering for Old-and Young-Timers alike. Enjoy!



Email Elliot at huffam@me.com or click here

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