Jeffrey Kacirk, Forgotten English: A Merry Guide to Antiquated Words, Packed with History, Fun Facts, Literary Excerpts, and Charming
Drawings (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997; also published as
Jeffrey Kacirck, Altered English: Surprising Meanings of Familiar Words (Pomegranate Communications, Inc., 2002)
These two volumes are a treasure for linguists and lexicographers, as well as for devotees of historic or epic fantasy. I thought I had a wide vocabulary, but they made me feel illiterate.
Altered English is a scholarly work, consisting of quotations from dictionaries, glossaries, lexicons and historical and anthropological studies showing the evolution of hundreds of words from their original meanings to their modern ones. There are many etymological notes as well. The bibliography is five pages in very small type.
Forgotten English is chattier. Words are grouped by subject, not purely alphabetically as in Altered English. Kacirk describes each one, with supporting quotes from literary or reference works. Usually he draws in other interesting words, more or less (sometimes much less) related to the section header. Again, the bibliography is almost five pages long and there is an index to make up for the lack of alphabetical order.
The illustrations in Altered English are engravings from three London publications of William Hone from the early 19th century. The source of those in Forgotten English is not given.
Kacirk's books can help explain misunderstood or mistaken meanings in almost any English book written more than a hundred or so years ago, and would be an excellent chairside reference for anyone reading Shakespeare, Marlowe or the more opaque sorts of historical fiction or fantasy.
[Faith J. Cormier]
Jeffrey Kacirk has also written The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten (Simon & Schuster, 2000). With his current publisher, Pomegranate, he puts out the Forgotten English Calendar. He does not seem to have a Web site, but there is a brief interview with him here.