Fubsy. Griseous. Cacotopia. Yestreen…

All these words may seem familiar, but what do they mean? Can you think of the last time you heard them? It’s unlikely that they would have come up in any recent conversation as these are ‘endangered’ words – utterances that are so under-used that they risk falling out of the dictionary and being lost forever

Luckily, there are those who are looking out for their interests. Recently a website – savethewords.org – was launched, encouraging users to adopt an endan­gered word and promise to use it frequently. And in early March an exhibition in London took this idea even further, by inviting designers and illus­trators to create artworks based on a lost word, with the proceeds of any sales of the works going towards the National Literacy Trust.

The Art of Lost Words exhibition was held, briefly, at the German Gymnasium in King’s Cross, with all works then made available to view online. The show is an etymologist’s heaven with its combi­nation of excellent design and illustration and selection of words that, when used, will undoubt­edly cause confusion/admiration/irritation around the Scrabble board. Fubsy, incidently, means squat; Griseous is an adjective meaning streaked or mixed with grey; Cacotopia is ‘a state in which everything is as bad as can be’ – surely a word that the media will resurrect as the recession deepens – while Yestreen is a rather charming way of saying ‘yesterday evening’.

The show features works from 47 participants including Angus Hyland, Andy Altmann (Why Not Associates), Jonathan Ellery, Alan Dye (NB: Studio), Freda Sack, Johnson Banks, David Pearson, and Marion Deuchars. It was the brainchild of Rebecca Pohancenik, a student on Kingston University’s ma in curating contemporary design, which is run in partnership with the Design Museum. Pohancenik is also one half of studio zwei, a design and typo­graphy studio founded last year with her husband Andreas Pohancenik, and (if that wasn’t enough) is also halfway through a phd on 17th century clock mechanisms. She contacted the contributors directly about The Art of Lost Words and was surprised to find that virtually everyone agreed to take part. “I was astonished,” she says. “I think it was the way I pitched it – I said ‘if you’re interested, let me know and I’ll send you the list of lost words’, and I think they were really curious to know what the words were. And once they saw them, they immediately started thinking of things. I let them choose a word – I felt that was really important, because it’s supposed to be creative, they’re supposed to be responding to the words.”

While a few of the words proved “instantly desirable” to several people at once, in the end everyone involved got one of their top three choices. As you might expect, the resulting artworks are hugely varied, distinguished by their creator’s individual style, but also by the influence of their chosen word. Alan Kitching has created a letterpress print for his interpretation of Rubefacience (n. the act of making red), while David Pearson made a set of two rubber stamps that illustrate Labascate (v. to begin to fall or slide). Angus Hyland contributed two detailed illustrations for Antigram (n. an anagram in which the word created has the opposite meaning to the original), while John Morgan made a collage using tactile paper created for the blind and partially-sighted to show Visotactile (adj. involv­ing both touch and vision). Pohancenik was keen to encourage this diversity. “I was initially only going to include type and typographers, but I didn’t feel that was quite broad enough for what I wanted to do,” she says. “So in the end I thought it should be about people who work with words: you have typographers, designers and illustrators, and all three should be together in the show.”

All the works are now available to view, and buy at studio zwei’s online space, text/gallery, through which Pohancenik hopes to stage more exhibitions based on words in the future. “Text/ gallery is the creative branch of what we’re doing at studio zwei,” she explains. “It’s a virtual gallery. [The exhibitions] will all be word-related. I’d like to curate projects around words, and hopefully draw more on history as well. I’m really inspired by the British Library when I go rummaging through the archives. So I think this is how it all comes together for me.”

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