16. June 2024

Old-fashioned words and phrases in English

Laughing young women enjoying a movie at the flicks

These old-fashioned words and phrases in English aren’t heard often anymore. They need a new lease on life!


Recently, while writing about extinct words in English, it occurred to me that there are plenty of old-fashioned words and phrases in English that haven’t died out entirely but have fallen out of favour. Every now and again, you might think of something your mum (or your grandma) used to say and wonder why you don’t seem to hear it anymore.

Some phrases die out because the phenomenon they are based on ceases to exist in everyday life. Others dry up because societal expectations and the nature of interpersonal relationships have changed, rendering the saying redundant.

Despite this, I think there’s plenty of life left yet in these not-so-old-chestnuts. Let’s pull them back from the brink!

1. To have a fit of the vapours

Meaning: to become hysterical, to be in a state of emotional agitation.

Think Jane Austen. Specifically, think of Pride & Prejudice and Mrs. Bennet having another one of her meltdowns. When, once again, she collapses into her chair, crying about her “poor nerves” (watch Alison Steadman knock the ball right out of the park with her own interpretation of the character in the 1995 adaptation here), she might be said to be having “a fit of the vapours”.

In today’s parlance, we have mostly dropped the reference to vapours, choosing to say “to have a fit” instead when someone kicks off.

What were these “vapours” exactly? Well, it is an archaic way of describing a whole basket of emotional and physical complaints in women. Considered from a modern point of view, “the vapours” was a veritable diagnostic dumping ground and could have caught anything from PMS to bipolar disorder.

Lacking any more sophisticated categorisations (and no doubt for mens’ convenience), all these health problems were lumped together under this catch-all label and declared to be caused by mysterious “vapours” emanating from that most mischievous of organs, the womb. Excuse me while I facepalm.

Well, despite the misogynistic origins, I still use this phrase every now and again – but only in a non-serious way and with lashings and lashings of irony.

[Quick book tip: to read more about the quite staggering array of physical and mental problems the womb has been made responsible for over the centuries, read “Unwell Women” by Elinor Cleghorn.]

2. Courting

Meaning: to conduct a serious romantic relationship with a view to marriage.

This one has only gone out of fashion in the last generation, as I know I’ve heard my mum use it numerous times to describe relationships among her contemporaries.

These days, the word “courting” is more often used in a non-romantic context, for example when a politician from one country is buttering up the representatives of another one with a view to obtaining some kind of advantage.

But I think I’d quite like to be “courted”. It just sounds so endlessly romantic and innocent, evoking as it does visions of elegant gentlemen visitors and coy hand-holding in the presence of a chaperone, eyelashes a-flutter.

3. To be/do something in high dudgeon

Meaning: to feel (and show) that one is very angry, upset or offended over something; to do something in furious and resentful manner.

I still see this phrase written every now and again and am glad it hasn’t died out completely. I like it a lot. It makes being in a state of anger or upset seem like an actual, physical place to which you go temporarily when you are in a huff – or for an extended period depending on how pissed off you are. I’m in high dudgeon quite often. In fact, I sometimes think I should set up camp there.

One of my favourite websites for this kind of language question, Grammarphobia, says some people think “dudgeon” comes from the Welsh word “dygen”, meaning malice or resentment. However, it is more likely to have come from the word for the wood used to make the handle of a dagger, later coming to be the name for the hilt itself. It’s been around since the 1500s.

The use of “dudgeon” to describe a state of anger (or behaviour done in a state of anger) goes back almost as far. “High dudgeon” sank its teeth (or dagger blade) firmly into the language, stubbornly surviving long after carrying a handy wee sword around with you stopped being a thing.

“Mary’s been in high dudgeon all morning.”

“Tom and Annie had a blazing row over the household chores and Tom ended up storming out of the house in high dudgeon.”

4. To go to the pictures

Meaning: to go to the cinema (UK), to go to the movies (US).

Another one that Gen X and the Millennials have casually tossed on the scrapheap. Going to the cinema used to be called “going to the moving pictures”, and it simply got shortened to this phrase, which stuck around, at least until the Boomer generation.

Another, similar phrase which I’ve heard my parents use is “going to the flicks” – a reference to the way early movies used to flicker on the screen. Technology has now improved and films no longer flicker; consequently, the phrase has more or less bitten the dust.

5. Insufferable

Meaning: highly annoying.

Why have we stopped saying this? It’s such a tremendous word and far more effective than saying you “can’t stand/bear” something (or someone). When something/someone is “insufferable”, it isn’t just that they are highly annoying – they literally cause you pain and you can’t deal with it. It’s so emotive.

Modern Germans still use the literal translation and the phrase “Ich kann [X] nicht leiden” (“I can’t stand [X]”; leiden = to suffer) is common.

Let’s bring back this bit of Victorian high drama to our speech. I know plenty of things (and people) I could apply it to.

6. To sally forth

Meaning: to set out or embark on an activity in a sudden, energetic or violent manner.

“Sally” has been used as a noun and a verb in the military since the 16th century to describe a charge or a sortie, in particular by besieged troops against the enemy.

Slowly, its meaning and usage shifted to much more casual, less embattled situations where you are simply leaving a place or venturing out to do something (“Shall we sally forth on Friday night for some cocktails and general shenanigans?”)

7. Ardent

Meaning: enthusiastic, fervent, passionate.

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Yes, we are back in the pages of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Darcy, that brooding, buttoned-up and eligible bachelor of Merriton, has finally loosened his stiff-upper lip and told Lizzy how he feels about her.

Such a classic line, lacking nothing in the way of barely-contained passion and desire. He wanted to rip her bodice off right there and then! (But would have to wait, because she wasn’t having any of it for the time being.)

But I digress. Mr. Darcy does tend to distract…

Nowadays, “ardent” has come to be used less in a romantic sense and more in the sense of sincere enthusiasm for something (like an activity or a football team) rather than someone.

The 21st century is such an unromantic place. Let’s look back to our forebears and bring back a bit of ardour to our personal relationships.

8. Steadfast

Meaning: to maintain a steady, unwavering course, for example in matters of love, allegiance or support.

The 21st century isn’t just a profoundly unromantic place – good manners seem to be on the outs too. Reliability is one of the virtues that is draining out of our lives the fastest. This isn’t just sad; it’s maddening too.

Why it is that people won’t commit to appointments until the last minute (if at all)? Or think it’s acceptable to casually flake out on an arrangement at very short notice without a proper apology? Or feel it’s not necessary to call/text to say they’re going to be late, even though most everyone has a phone these days? It’s quite beyond me.

I’m an old-fashioned girl. I like people who do what they say they’re going to do, say yes (or no) and mean it, and show through their words and their deeds that they can be counted on.

I like – and consciously seek out – steadfast, loyal people. And I do as I would be done by in being steadfast and loyal myself.

9. Gladden one’s heart

Meaning: to make someone happy.

Imagine your poor little heart, hanging out in your rib cage with its sad face on. What a wretched state of affairs! What that melancholy little organ needs round about now is some gladdening. You can gladden your own heart by doing something you know gives you a lift. Or someone might take it upon themselves and do it for you!

Feel your happy little heart swell and know it has been well and truly gladdened. Now, doesn’t that beat saying you have been “cheered up” by a country mile?

10. Hark!

Meaning: listen, pay close attention.

If you slipped this into conversation today without warning, the word would most probably have the desired effect even if the people around you have no clue what you’re on about. They’d stop and listen purely because one of their number has just said something which wouldn’t be out of place in the nativity.

“Hark” developed from the Middle English “herken” – which is related to similar words right across the Germanic linguistic landscape. Indeed, modern German still uses the word “horchen” (to listen) and “aufhorchen” (“to listen up”).

Modern English, alas, seems to have lost all interest in the word.

Hark! It’s time to bring it back.


Related articles:

10 charming Northern English words from Old Norse

The word the English language has been waiting for

Gen Z slang? I’m here for it!

15 fabulous British slang words


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