31. May 2024

Extinct words in English that we need to bring back

hands holding up wooden letters to spell the word English

These extinct words in English are ripe for a 21st century revival!


Language is a living, breathing entity which evolves along with the societies that use it. As our world transforms, so too does the vocabulary we employ to describe it. This phenomenon is especially evident in the English language, which, over centuries, has seen countless words emerge, flourish, and eventually fade into obscurity. The reasons why certain words in English have become extinct are as varied as the words themselves, reflecting shifts in technology, culture, and societal norms.

English is also famed for its willingness to pick up and absorb words from other languages. Borrowing from Latin, French, and other languages has enriched English vocabulary, but also resulted in certain native terms becoming extinct. That dynamic also extends to variants of the English language. The cultural hegemony of the USA has seen British English absorbing – even re-absorbing – words from American English that we hear in the countless films, TV programmes and other media that have flooded our senses since early childhood.

We humans have been going with the flow of language evolution for thousands of years, acquiring and discarding words without thinking about it. Yet even as we sail forward on the eternal ebb and flow of the English language, we should be vigilant. Some words are just too good to let go entirely.

Here are 11 extinct (or near-extinct) words in British English which I think need to make a comeback!

1. Picaroon

This word first appeared in the English language in the early 1600s and referred to a pirate or a pirate ship. In the subsequent years, the scope of the word broadened and generalised (presumably as pirates became less of a thing), coming to mean a thief, rogue or vagabond before it dropped off the radar completely.

It is likely to be a borrowing from Spanish – pícaro in modern Spanish means “rogue” too.

Oh, you picaroon, you!

2. Tosticated

The more common a certain phenomenon is in a certain culture, the more words that culture will have to describe it. Indeed, Inuits have numerous words to describe various types of snow and ice – something they see a lot in their native territories. In the same way, the British have many, many words to describe being drunk.

Tosticated is a word on that list that is only rarely heard these days (if at all), having fallen by the wayside in favour of words like “lathered”, “sloshed” or “hammered”.

The state of tostication also means to be befuddled or perplexed, without alcohol having been involved.

It’s such a nice word, pleasing to pronounce. I am quite tosticated as to why people have stopped saying it.

3. Lunting

This lovely linguistic creation describes the act of taking a nice relaxing stroll while smoking a pipe. Tobacco first arrived in Europe in the early 1500s and “lunting” cropped up soon afterwards as pipe-smoking and perambulating in parallel caught on as a pastime.

Quite niche terminology. And, just like in nature, the more highly specialised the creature, the greater the chance that it will survive in a changing world, hunkered down in its own habitat. Indeed, “lunting” is still in active use among pipe-smoking enthusiasts – on this pipe smoking forum, for example. There’s even a Reddit group devoted to the activity, with several hundred followers.

Long live lunting!

4. Curglaff

Oh, those Scots. They’ve given us some of the funniest words in British English and continue to thrill and surprise us with “curglaff”, meaning the shock and sudden intake of breath when one plunges into cold water.

Since wild swimming seems to be THE middle-class sport in Britain at the moment, I’m feeling hopeful that a brand-new market has opened up for “curglaff”. All 21st century open-water swimmers in the heavily polluted UK need now is a word to describe the feeling of jumping into cold water full of sewage.

5. Crapulous

Despite the close resemblance, this word is not related to the modern, widely used word “crap”. It was first recorded in English in the 1530s and is an adjective used to described someone who tends to eat and drink to excess or is suffering from the consequences of such an excess.

It is believed to come from the Latin crapulosus (“drunken”) or crapula (“intoxication”), which in turn sprang from the Ancient Greek κραιπάλη (kraipálē, “intoxication, hangover”). Going overboard with the victuals and libations really is a habit as old as time.

6. Septemfluous

I can’t imagine that this word was ever anything other than almost extinct. For how often are you called upon to express the notion of something “flowing in seven streams”? Have you ever seen anything flowing in seven streams? I don’t think I have. And if I did, I think I would be quite content to say “oh, look – it’s flowing in seven streams” rather than rummage around in my memory for this word. It is rather pleasing though.

7. Rullion

This one has multiple, quite various meanings, which make sense once you unravel them, so let’s wind it back to the likely origin, the Old English words “gehriflian” (to wrinkle or shrivel) and “rifeling”. These then developed into the Middle English “rewelin” or “rewling”, a kind of rawhide shoe.

In Scots English in years gone by, a “rullion” was a shoe made of untanned leather. However, the word also sent out little meaning-tentacles which wrapped themselves around other phenomena. In this way, “rullion” also came to mean a woman of a coarse nature.

Woe betide you if I ever hear you calling me a rullion!

8. Obstropulous

I don’t know why you would use the word “obstreperous” when you could reach for its (now obsolete) dialectal synonym “obstropulous”. They both mean the quality of being unruly or resistant to control.

My dad described me as obstreperous quite often when I was little – not without reason. I might have responded better to the reprimands if he’d called me “obstropulous” instead. As it is, I’ve remained…unruly, awkward and entirely resistant to control. Bad luck, Dad.

9. Mirificent

Perhaps it’s the proximity to the word “magnificent” that gives the game away – but your first assumption about the meaning of this word will probably have been correct. It is a rare, possibly obsolete way of saying something is splendid or awesome.

English is so replete with superlatives that it’s hard to gauge why exactly this one fell out of use. Do your bit to bring it back and use it in a sentence today – the odds are that you won’t even have to explain it.


10. Snollygoster

This obsolete American English word made a sudden and unexpected comeback on the other side of the Atlantic in Britain as part of a scandal about MP expenses in 2009.

A “snollygoster” originated in the USA in the 19th century and means “a shrewd, undisciplined person, not guided by principles”. No wonder that it came to be associated with politicians who, as a group, aren’t exactly famed for their honesty or trustworthiness.

The word is thought to come from the Pennsylvanian Dutch expression “schnelle geeschter”, which in turn comes from the German “schneller Geist”, or “quick wit/ spirit”.

Let’s keep up the good work and use this word wherever possible. Lord knows 21st century politics provides us with enough opportunities.

11. Holmgang

Now, since this means “a duel to the death”, I don’t think there is much potential for use in modern day-to-day life in the West where such events are – happily – rare. But I do think there is scope for revivifying it by shifting its meaning to “arguing until you resolve the issue/you’re both too tired to carry on/you agree to disagree”.

“Holmgang” has its origins in Old Norse, where “holmganga” meant “to go to an island”, i.e. exactly the kind of isolated place where you could indulge in your fight to the death. Similarly, people who want to argue until the cows come home might also take their cue from the Scandinavians of yore and take themselves off into a separate space to clear up their dispute.

(Old Norse has had a big influence on modern English, especially in the North of England, where I come from. This linguistic legacy has been a source of fascination for me for many years, and I’ve written more about the words the Vikings bequeathed to us in this article.)


More articles for committed English language nerds:

Augustus Gloop HAS to be fat – sorry, snowflakes!

Yorkshire words & phrases I’m still using after 19 years abroad

15 fabulous British slang words

Old-fashioned words & phrases in English


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