Lost Words, Lost Beauty

October 23, 2011

Most English words we take for granted. Never think about them. They mean what they mean and ably serve their function. Then there are the smattering of words we love not because of their meaning but their sound. Actually more than sound: the pleasurable feel of speaking them. Mine include serendipity, euphoria, and melancholy. But what words would we love to hear and say if only we knew them? I’m not talking about any in the vast pool of 171,476 in current use and listed with full meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. Or even any among the OEA‘s 47,156 obsolete words.

There are the smattering of words we love not because of their meaning but their sound.

In classic serendipity while browsing Futility Closet, I stumbled upon an obsolete word not even in the OED, a word that immediately appealed to me because it describes something so deserving of its own word. But what seemed like the most logical way to pronounce kumatage — phonetically gives it no aural or oral appeal. After much searching, I found the correct pronunciation courtesy of Endangered Words: A Collection of Rare Gems for Book Lovers by Simon Hertnon. Koo-mah-TAHZH is rhythmic, exotic, and beautiful. How fitting given the meaning. According to The New American Practical Navigator, published in 1837, a kumatage is:

A bright appearance in the horizon, under the sun or moon, arising from the reflected light of those bodies from the small rippling waves on the surface of the water.

Why the word faded away into obsolescence is a mystery. If another word replaced kumatage, I can’t find it. And the fate of kumatage makes me wonder: is there a word for things that deserve a word but don’t have one?