Week forty-eight: SAMNITIS (probability 19787), by David Sutton

SAMNITIS (plural SAMNITISES) is defined by Chambers as 'an unknown poisonous plant'. It occurs in the work of Edmund Spenser and that's all anyone seems to know about it. It may seem strange that a dictionary should contain words for which nobody has a precise definition, but the wonder is rather that our dictionaries have so few such words, given the way that meanings can grow dark with the centuries, coupled with the possibilities of textual errors creating words that never existed in the first place.

A similar word, also due to Spenser, is ASTROPHEL, 'an unidentified bitter starlike plant, suggested to be the seaside aster'. And Spenser also gives us SPARKE, an unidentified weapon of some kind, possibly an error for SPARTHE which is a kind of long battle-axe, and ENTROLD or INTROLD, 'a past participle of unknown meaning: enrolled, in the sense of encircled, has been conjectured'.

Shakespeare also contributes several words of highly obscure meaning. For example, there is PRENZIE, which occurs in 'Measure for Measure' and has the following definition in Chambers 'variously explained as representing primsie, princely, Fr prenez garde, or connected with prone (a homily), or a misprint'. Nothing like hedging your bets... Then we have PAIOCK, PAIOCKE, PAJOCK or PAJOCKE, which occurs in Hamlet and is conjectured to mean 'peacock'. Then there is MORALL, 'a word used in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, emended by editors to mural, but possibly a misprint for wall'. Finally there is the magnificent OVERSCHUTCHT, from Henry IV Part 2, which is 'variously conjectured to mean overworn in service or whipped at the cart's tail'. It was appropriated by Sir Walter Scott who tamed its wild orthography to OVERSCUTCHED.

Those like me who find definitions an almost essential adjunct to remembering words might be thought at a disadvantage with the words listed above, but in fact their very lack of definition tends to make them memorable. It is a bit like that facetious mathematical proof that there is no uninteresting number, which turns on the idea that the first number you decide to nominate as uninteresting becomes of interest as being the first uninteresting number. So you move on to nominate another number, but then because the first number is no longer uninteresting this number too becomes interesting as the first uninteresting number. I have an idea that mathematicians put it more elegantly, but you get the idea.

So, by analogy, can there be such a thing as an uninteresting word? Watch this space...

P.S. SAMNITIS has two anagrams. And these are?


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