Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A forgotten oubliette

Discovering useful words for useful things is always an intriguing aspect of lexicography, as Ian Brookes recently mused on in this blog. Yet sometimes it's even nicer to rediscover obscure words that will rarely serve any use at all. This was the case recently when I flicked through Foyle's Philavery and stumbled across the word oubliette, the name for a secret dungeon beneath a trap door.

Oubliette is hardly a word that a person needs to use everyday, unless perhaps you're trapped in a dungeon or live in a castle. But as a child obsessed with Labyrinth - in which David Bowie in tight lycra was almost as scary as the magical creatures and mythical monsters - an oubliette seemed a logical thing to be aware of. Where else would you trap hapless wanderers within the sprawling maze, never to return again?

In this sense oubliette acts in the truest sense of the word, for not only is the dungeon designed to trap its victims, but to remove them from memory entirely, revealed by the word's origins in the French oublier, to forget. With no way out but the trapdoor through which they fell, prisoners relied on their captors' mercy, or some other outside assistance, to get out. And those that didn't were simply forgotten. Which is quite ironic, since the word itself is likely to be one I'll forget again and again, only to be reminded of it by the occasional nostalgic film viewing. And while oubliettes are still occasionally discovered in this country, I'll just keep hoping I never find myself trapped in one.

Deborah Smith

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