Precious things, words. Neglect them and they all too soon disappear. I was reminded of this sad truth when I read a caption in a newspaper last week: “Nick Lane, of Defined Wines in Canterbury, practises the Napoleonic tradition of extracting a cork ahead of a sabrage competition among British winemakers.”
Overlooking “ahead of”, I was delighted to see the word sabrage - opening a bottle of champagne with a sabre - making an appearance. I’ve seen it done once, but never knew it had a name. I can see, though, that there aren’t many opportunities you can drop it into conversation, so perhaps desuetude is inevitable.
Looking up other words that have fallen by the wayside, I came across some gems: ambodexter: one who takes bribes from both sides; betrump: to deceive, cheat, elude; quacksalver: one who dishonestly claims knowledge of or skill in medicine, a pedlar of false cures; losenger: a false flatterer, a lying rascal, a deceiver; coney-catch: to swindle, cheat, trick, dupe, deceive; sillytonian: a silly or gullible person, esp one considered as belonging to a notional sect of such people. I feel that in these troubled times all of them could be wielded to describe our political classes and the host of experts who daily profess to know best, especially the last one, which seems perfect to describe the alumni of that boarding school in Berkshire that produced so many of our leaders.
And now a question from my wife: “What exactly,” she asked with some asperity recently, “does ‘the devil is in the detail’ mean?” It’s a current favourite with, as she puts it, “smug media twats”. And as I waffled on, I too was aware of all sense draining from this stupid phrase. Not for the first time, she is right.
• Jonathan Bouquet is an Observer columnist