Weird, merry and burra-bibiship

”weird” is a wonderful word. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it’s derived from the Old English “wyrd”, meaning “destiny”, “fate” or in the plural “the fates”.

Wondering about the name of the storm “Urd” brought me to the Norns, Urd (according to Wikipedia) representing the past and controlling the destinies of people together with the other two norns, Skuld and Verdandi. “Urd” is glossed with “wyrd”.

“wyrd” had become obsolete in English but survived in Scotland. Shakespeare used it for the “weird sisters” (witches) in Macbeth and it later obtained the sense of very strange, supernatural, uncanny in English. My Scots-English dictionary still lists “weird” as also having the meaning of “destiny” or “fate”. The same word is relating to the verb “werden” in German.  I like the word a lot now that I know it better.

The whole area of obsolete words and, in particular, why words become obsolete interests me. I would like to find an academic study which attempts to categorise different ways to obsolescence. Sometimes, for instance, reality changes and a phenomenon no longer exists or exists only as a narrow use technical term (for instance, a lot of vocabulary relating to various kinds of horse-drawn vehicles). Or political and cultural changes occur, an example being the wealth of words from India, which made their way into (and in many cases out of) English, so that “thug” is well established (aided and abetted by sub-variants of our national character unfortunately) but “tiffin” and “memsahib” are becoming rather rare not to mention “burra-beebee” (an Anglo Indian lady claiming precedence at a party, which became sufficiently well established in English in days of yore for Viscountess Falkland to refer to “burra-bibiship”).

Another interesting topical word is “merry”. In my youth, it was widely used as a synonym for “tipsy” (perhaps slightly tipsy) but I can’t hear myself or younger generation(s) using it in this sense.

There’s “merry-go-round” but my feeling is that the US “carousel” is taking over in the UK too. And it survives too in “playing merry hell”. And Robin Hood’s merry men perhaps. But there’s something Dickensian, red faced whiskered and jolly about a social gathering being merry.

The word’s survival is powerfully aided, of course, by “Merry Christmas”, which we write as it seems a bit monotonous to say “Happy Christmas” and a “Happy New Year” so Merry survives in the combination but my impression is that “Happy Christmas” is increasingly the normal greeting when used by itself.

“Merry” is an old word also going back to Anglo-Saxon and older variants of German. It has also given us the related “mirth”. But somehow being merry is not very chic, neither in the form of ordinary nor alcohol-induced happiness. The word has rather gone out of fashion, which is another interesting category.

Words tell us a lot about a culture, what you can say, what people felt they needed to say. The Anglo-Saxons, for instance, had “leodbygen” (sale of one’s compatriots), which has rather dropped out of use (temporarily?). Words are weird and wonderful. I love them.

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