Our fascination with words, where they came from and how they should and should not be used, is not a modern phenomenon. Long before Lynne Truss wrote her successful Eats, Shoots and Leaves, indeed even before William Safire began to submit the celebrated column that graced The New York Times for 30 years until shortly before his death last September, there was It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power.
I wonder how many people reading those last seven words thought instantly of Reader's Digest. It must be one of the longest column titles in publishing history to command such recognition, though I admit to having remembered it inaccurately as "increase" instead of enrich. The column made its debut in the magazine's American edition in early 1945, a time when the world was necessarily concerned more with military than word power, and crossed the Atlantic to Britain a month later. It has continued to appear, without fail or so I am assured, in the 65 years that have followed, and may these days be found in all 50 international editions.
Thinking back a half a century, I have a clear recollection from childhood of turning to the column each month to test and broaden my knowledge. In the original format, four possible definitions were offered for each of 20 words. This has changed. In 2001, I am sorry to say, the column adopted a snappier title, Word Power. The quiz has also been reduced to 15 words and adopts a different theme each month.
But one thing has not altered. Readers may still expect the stiffest of challenges even if they consider themselves as having reasonably good vocabularies. So I decided to test myself for the first time in 30 years or more. After failing to find the magazine in high street shops or at railway stations, I persuaded a friendly soul at its London office to send some copies. My greatest fear, of course, was that in conscientiously reporting the outcome for this column, I would have to confess to - and then justify - a dismal performance. I cannot recall ever getting higher than 18 out of 20 correct answers in the old days, and my score was frequently much lower.
Harry Mount, the current editor of Word Power, offered reassurance: the toughness of the test was no accident. "It wouldn't be as much fun if everyone found they were getting them all right," he said. Luck was on my side. The chosen theme of the first Word Power that I consulted was the battlefield. For once, it was a doddle (an informal term of British origin, meaning a simpleton in the early 17th century but a simple task these days). Although I possess no detailed knowledge of military matters, I somehow managed to score 15 out of 15. Some of the listed words (honcho, jihad, guerrilla and quisling) were so easy that no further explanation here is required. One or two forced me to make calculated guesses (Herrenvolk for the German master race, kraal for an African village).
But my pride was soon dented. The next edition dipped into Adam Jacot's book on bizarre English words, The Wonder of Whiffling, and the best gloss I can apply to my result is that it approached a high single figure. But before you are tempted to criticise, you may wish to consider how you would have defined ostrobogulous, accidie, cachinnate, godwottery, fornale, smidsy and brendice. Come to think of it, I did guess correctly at brendice. It is, or rather it was 400 years ago, a cup used for drinking toasts. As for the others I have mentioned, I shall leave My Word's readers to embark on their own exploration. They may find it an ostrobogulous journey.
Colin Randall in a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at email@example.com