I’ve dipped into the Dictionary of Archaic Words again, sorted through its starchy heaps of lexical refuse, all those old words the language has left behind like so much dried paste. Some of them are quite quaint and charming. Some of them have a kind of…
Well, look at this one: fulculency. The definition given isn’t even a definition, it’s just a citation: “Dreggie refuse and fulculencie,” a quote that it cites to page 41 of Topsell’s Serpents, a reference I easily followed to Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, a classic work from 1658 that is, for your enjoyment, available online.
Well, it was right sporting of the dictionary to update the spelling, as they do. The Oxford English Dictionary also does that: faced with one citation for an obsolete word, it still may update the spelling to what it would be if the word had survived, like one of those digitally aged images of a long-missing person. Just as long as the starting image is good. That’s the great principle of data processing: GIGO – garbage in, garbage out (I once got in trouble in high school for writing that as SISO instead; I’m sure you can guess, as Mr. Stutz did, what the S stood for).
This word isn’t to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. But if it has to do with dreggy refuse, it makes me think of another word that may have a succulence of sound but certainly not one of sense: feculency. Something that is feculent is, literally, shitty; feculent is an adjective related to feces.
I must admit, though, it immediately makes me think of the French side of a cornstarch box (any Canadian will know what I mean when I say “the French side”; all packaging here is bilingual). It says fécule de maïs. That always made me think of fecal mass, though fortunately the results of moistening the white powder, though gloppy and sticky, were not otherwise disgusting. But I assumed that it was just coincidence.
If you look up fécule, you find that it comes from Latin fæcula ‘tartar’, which in turn comes from fæx, ‘sediment’. Actually, fæx has several related definitions, none of which is ‘electronically transmitted facsimile’ (that’s fax), but one of which is, per Wiktionary, “scum; the dregs of humanity.” So there’s that. Wiktionary also gives the full declension of fæx, and you can see that the nominative plural is… fæces, the original Latin (and still current British) spelling of feces. Yep. If someone offers you some fæx, decline.
But that’s fæx; what about facts? We’re still stuck with this fulculency. But, hey, let’s just flip to page 41 of Topsell’s for more context and…
Huh. Not there.
The author of the dictionary must have had a different edition, containing just the serpents, as opposed to the more compendious, and apparently newer, volume presented in facsimile online. A little resourceful searching finds me the quote on the top of page 621: “he plainly perceived the water that was neer, on all sides to be filthy, stained and polluted with much stinking matter, and as it were dreggy, refuse and feculency.”
Oh. Well. I guess he had an imperfect facsimile. The fax was fæx. And, you know, SISO. Well, I hereby declare fulculency to be the special word meaning lexical dreggy refuse, words that exist only as someone’s mistake. Until, that is, they are ploughed back in to fertilize the language.