Amongst all the sights and stalls at the Ally Pally Knitting and Stitching Show last weekend, one of the most eyecatching was a London black cab, its typically shiny casing clad in a technicoloured cosy made from over twenty kilos of wool.
The impetus for this intriguing project was a collaboration between author Safia Shah and The Endangered Words Campaign. They aim to rescue fabulous words from the verbal scrapheap, resuscitating those words which are vanishing from our linguistic habits, given the texting and tweeting tendencies of modern society. I suppose this is partly to do with the brevity of these forms of communication, as some words are just waaaaay too long to attempt in short spaces. Having said this, the endangered words list isn’t limited to cumbersome words, as the monosyllabic are also included. A handful of these words sprawl in knitted scrawl across the rump of the taxi, including: curmudgeon, brouhahah, muckle, mollycoddle, quaff, squib, snarky, and mimp. I can’t even find some of these words in my trusty Oxford English dictionary.
Shah adopts the use of such endangered words in her soon-published childrens book Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited. The story culminates in an outlandish knitting contest, and a knitted cab-cosy would certainly be a contender for first prize! She is a lover of words, wanting to promote communication “beyond the telephone keypad”, which is where knitting and crochet comes in; hands engaged with the hook and knitting are too preoccupied to text or tweet, giving greater opportunity for vocal yarning. The conversation over this cosy must have been a very long one, as it took four months to make by twenty ladies collectively known as The Materialists. The loss of words matters to Shah because there are a multitude “out there just waiting to be used”. She considers it odd that in childrens literature there are invented words, despite there already being “so many intruiging or amazing words slipping out of use”. Investing in such words isn’t about superiority or being lah-di-dah. As Shah asserts: “Language is something to play with, not to use to show off”.
For those UK-based yarnsmiths out there, keep your eyes peeled: this woolly Fairway vehicle is road-legal and will be journeying round the South East between the start of November and the end of the year. And while we’re gawping in amazement at this taxi, let’s not forget some marvellous words relating to our own craft. There are descriptions of yarn texture which I hadn’t heard of before starting the crochet diploma, and they are worth bandying about because they are so delicious. (Shah talks about relishing the sound of words, saying “You can almost mentally suck a word or phrase, like a boiled sweet. Slurp away and you will get far more out of language than its simple meaning.”) My favourites are: knop (including little lumps of fibre), boucle (loopy), and slub (having thick and thin sections). I also like snarl which, in this context is nothing to do with growling. It describes yarn with long twisty bits sticking out, but could equally apply to what happens when our skein gets tangled up, or snaggled.
There has been a resurgence in crochet and knitting; people are keen to ensure these activities survive after slumps in popularity (especially crochet). We crafters could give endangered words a helping hand too.