I was watching a video yesterday about a 32-hour train trip through Argentina, an interesting trip in a new train on old tracks, with a locomotive that is made to go up to 160 km/h pulling a passenger train at an average 36 km/h over old tracks past endless scenery, towns, and stations. As with many YouTube videos about train trips, the narration is in subtitles rather than voice-over. About halfway through, as the narrator took the chance at a station stop to get an outside view of the train and the station, he noted that the railroad was not in its newest condition:
“Take a look at the tracks,” the subtitle reads, with a view from above of two largely overgrown pairs of tracks next to his train… “it’s vestuous for sure.”
This is not a word I had known before. It seemed to have come from ancient days, not much refreshed by recent use, rather like the tracks it described. But what, exactly, did it mean? Overgrown? Decaying?
I looked in Wiktionary. Wiktionary did not know the word.
I looked in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED did not know the word.
I knew – only because he had told the viewer so – that the narrator was French. So perhaps the word is an attempt to render a French word directly into English? I did a Google search and found a couple of sites that had been machine translated from French.
The first, from Chateau.com, is a tantalizing description of a champagne. “Vestuous of a magnificent golden colour with light emerald tints, the Cuvée des Princes is crossed by a fine cord of creamy bubbles.”
Hmm. If you click on the language button at the top, you get the French: “Vétu d’une magnifique robe dorée aux légers reflets d’émeraude, la Cuvée des Princes est traversée par un fin cordon de bulles crémeuses.”
OK, so that means ‘robed’ – vétu is a misspelling of vêtu. So the tracks are overgrown?
But then the second, from an Airbnb listing, is in a review of a house in France. The Google results give the following preview: “Nice stay, great pool, the host is available, the house is a bit vestuous but with large room that can accommodate a large family.”
Hmm. However, when I go to the site, I see that sentence as “Pleasant stay, great swimming pool, the host is available, the house is a bit old-fashioned but with large rooms that can accommodate a large family.” So Google’s preview translates vestuste as vestuous but Airbnb’s site translates it as old-fashioned.
But I also see “Some info has been automatically translated. Show original language.” I click on that, and I see this: “Sejour agréable, super piscine, l’hôte est disponible, la maison est un peu vestuste mais avec de grande chambre pouvant accueillir une grande famille.”
Now, if you run that through translate.google.com, you’ll get yet another result: “the house is a bit dingy.” But vestuste is not a word you can find in a French dictionary. That, however, is because it’s a misspelling for vétuste – which means ‘dilapidated’ or ‘antiquated’. It’s from Latin vetustus, from vetus, ‘old’. It has a rarely used English counterpart: vetust.
That works with the YouTuber’s intention. But that’s an interesting trip from the old to the new. To get to vestuousfrom that, you have to conjecture an s where there wasn’t one. At least to get to it from vêtu the s is historically accurate (as usual in French, the ˆ indicates a historical s that stopped being said and then stopped being written) – it’s related to English vest – but of course it’s been misspelled with é on the site. And either way, the -u or -uste has been turned into English -uous, which is not really how it would usually go – an English -uous is more likely matched to French -ueux and -ueuse.
So in both cases there’s been a misspelling, and the machine translation, instead of understanding the intent, has grabbed this apparently suitable English word. Except where did it get the idea that there was an English word vestuous to translate either of these words to?
Well, there’s one more fun thing, one last bit of dressed-up antiquity: there are several other results for vestuous on Google, all in historical English books… all of which have been digitized with OCR (optical character recognition). In many cases, you can see the original. And you find that the OCR has read veſtuous – which it then rendered into modern typography as vestuous – where it saw vertuous. Which is (as context will readily tell you, even if you don’t look it up) an old spelling of virtuous.
An ancient virtue, decayed and misunderstood, brought into the modern times as nothing but a byword for obsoletion and costume. How damned perfect. I think I will start using vestuous for the myriad faux-archaisms often inflicted on us: ſ misread as f, þe olde misread as ye olde, endless excrescent e’s (Crowne, Ranche), and wanton misuse (typically mocking) of -eth and -est. “Ah,” I can say, looking at these new trains travelling labouredly on old tracks, “vestuous for sure.”