More than ever I encounter unfamiliar words I’m unable to decrypt from context or etymology. Perhaps it means I’m reading more, or I’m finally accepting the depths of my ignorance, and it does give me the opportunity to revisit the dictionary. I’m not alone in finding “alamite” a mystery, according to The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2016) by Peter Gilliver. Even Sir James Augustus Henry Murray, the dictionary’s first editor, judged the word’s meaning “entirely unknown,” but included it anyway because it was found in a 1458 will left by Sir Thomas Chaworth of Nottinghamshire. In a description of cushions he was leaving to his offspring, Chaworth writes: “Hengyng for ye halle and parlor of tapisserwerk, and alle the kuchyns of tappisserwerk with alamitez.”
It looks like a passage pulled at random from Finnegans Wake but Gilliver tells us “tappisserwerk” means tapestry, though my spell-check software helpfully suggests “patisserie,” which served to make me hungry. The OED entry, with no definition, part of speech, etymology or suggested pronunciation, is a marvel of epistemological legerdemains: “Origin unknown. From the context, apparently denoting something connected with a cushion.” The entry adds “Obs. rare.” Gilliver seems to admire Murray’s completism. I’m reminded of Borges’“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Gilliver writes:
“Other such entries followed, including aquile, battleage, capoche, and many more. (In later entries it became more usual to be explicit, with a note such as `Of uncertain etymology and meaning.’) Some of these words are well-known cruxes in the interpretation of Shakespeare and other writers; in other cases the original source is little-known.”
The entry for “aquile” is even sparser than alamite’s. As to meaning: “Derivation and meaning unknown. Dr. Morris suggests: To demand, ask, or obtain?” At least the source, Pearl, from the late fourteenth century, is well-known: “Of þe lombe I haue þe aquylde For a syȝt þer of þurȝ gret fauor.”
“Battleage”: suggests a martial meaning, but the OED is refreshingly honest: “Of uncertain etymology and meaning.” It’s a noun, and the dictionary offers a 1526 citation: “Grindeing of Wheate, Messurage, Carridge, and Battleage of Wheat, Bread, and Meale.” Again, Im hungry.
When I saw “capoche,” I envisioned the unholy union of Al Capone, the author of In Cold Blood and poché. After the boilerplate “Obs. Rare” and “meaning uncertain,” the OED adds: “Johnson suggests ‘perhaps to strip off the hood,’ and refers us to capouch (“a hood or cowl”) and “a sportive use of caboche,” which means “to cut off the head of (a deer) close behind the horns.” I’m no longer hungry.