I came across the word while reading The Way the World Works, a book of essays by Nicholson Baker. And since learning of it, vicambulist has become my new favorite word -- and not just because it's an uncommon term and with a good mouthfeel. I like it because it directly applies to me. I love to wander aimlessly through cities, and since learning of it, I've been reminiscing about the time I spent in London, England, my junior year of college.
It was the winter/spring of 1993 and I was participating in my college's study abroad program. England is an expensive place and being there for the entire semester severely strained my resources. To put it in non-euphemistic terms, I was broke. I'm talking not sure I had enough money to eat every day of the month broke. So, for entertainment, and to escape my flat where I lived with my friend Christian and three strangers, I went for walks. Very long walks. Every day. It was a wonderful time of my life and I learned a lot about the city and myself. But I digress ....
To say vicambulist is a lexicographical deep cut is something of an understatement. The word does not appear in any of my dictionaries or thesauri, including the Dictionary of Uncommon Words; Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, or Preposterous Words; The Highly Selective Dictionary for Extraordinarily Literate, or the Thinker's Thesaurus. The closest any of these books have to it is flaneur, meaning "an idle man-about town" or "one who strolls through city streets idly or aimlessly."
The word is also absent from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is strange because the essay of Baker's that contains the word is about Ammon Shea, the man who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, one volume after the other.
IN THIS ISSUE:
Commentary: Bitchin’ about “Basic”
Say What? (New Words and Phrases or Words and Phrases New to Me)
Words and References in the News
New Additions to the Butter Lamb Reference Library
FRONT MATTER: TOUGH LESSONS
The older I get, the more instructional the movies that comprise the original Star Wars trilogy become. I could go on and on about the life lessons these films have to offer, especially the second of the movies in this trinity, The Empire Strikes Back, but I'll spare you. (There'll be another time!) Instead, I'll just focus on one particularly poignant moment from Return of the Jedi.
Here’s the scene: Luke has kept his promise to Yoda and returned to Dagoba to complete his training. When he arrives, he finds Yoda old and frail and close to death. They talk, Yoda dies, and then Luke, lost and forlorn, takes a moment to process it all. As he does, Obi-wan Kenobi in the form of a spirit/ghost comes strolling out of Dagoba's swampy environs and tells Luke, “Yoda will always be with you.” Luke looks at Obi-wan like he’s the fly he’s been trying to kill for hours and then gets all up in his grill.
Luke: Why didn't you tell me? You told me that Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi-wan: Your father was seduced by the dark side of the force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So, what I told you was true … from a certain point of view.
Luke: (incredulously) A certain point of view?
Obi-wan: Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
Obi-wan is right and as the look on Luke's face let’s us know that this idea — that people are apt to bend or spin the truth — is a tough truth bomb to handle.
So, what does all this have to do with dictionaries? Plenty, for despite an amorphous and looming insistence that dictionaries are the ultimate arbiters of meaning, pronunciation, spelling, and usage, subjectivity is endemic in the world of lexicography.
Nowhere is this better exemplified that in the brew-ha-ha that followed the publication of the third edition of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language in 1961. Webster's third (as it's known among the lexicography set) broke with the “authoritarian tradition” among lexicographers and, in the words of Hartmann's and James's Dictionary of Lexicography, “abandoned any claim to be a lexical canon and discarded all puristic tendencies.”
But, hey, don't take my word for it. Consider the following lengthy excerpt from the Dictionary of Lexicography, which provides some thought-provoking examples of this subjectivity, how it’s been around from the beginning, and where those who make the dictionaries draw the line.
In … shattering the image of the dictionary as a linguistic arbiter, this lexicographical cause célèbre (i.e., Webster’s Third) engendered a controversy which lasted for several years. The public, even some literary editors, did not want a dictionary that recorded even careless (albeit generalized) pronunciations, or meanings felt to be 'incorrect'. It was not, in the view of some, the dictionary's place to describe, but to prescribe. However, the replacement in Webster's Third of a normative, attitudinal approach to dictionary-making by one based on objectively observed facts about language was in tune with the currents of linguistic thought of the time, and indeed within a tradition that had begun with Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Johnson's initial aim had been to compile a definitive dictionary for English along the prescriptive model of the Académie française's national French dictionary. However, realizing that change was inherent in language, and that 'fixing' English in this way was an unrealistic proposition, he sought to show sufficient grounds for his definitions by supplementing them with illustrative citations from "the best writers." Thus, he hoped to temper the process of what was at the time perceived as degeneration of the language, rather than attempt a stabilization of an unrealizable 'ideal'. Johnson's appeal to usage rather than etymology in defining words was as innovative as it was controversial. His methodology of using citations to corroborate definitions, however, has provided the model for the dictionaries of our day. Nevertheless, Johnson was not entirely objective, especially in his selection of words to be defined, and he omitted those he considered would offend the sensibilities of the polite society of his day.
Whilst the dictionary, therefore, can properly reflect change, it thereby also legitimizes it. The ready availability of huge banks of electronic data have provided hitherto unobtainable evidence of language use, indicating subtle discriminations only suspected before. For example, many dictionaries of English have defined (and still define) big in terms of large, and vice versa. The evidence from concordances of occurrences of these adjectives in extensive modern text archives, however, demonstrates convincingly that although they do overlap in some contexts, they are differentiated systematically in many others, and that an important concomitant of these differentiations lies in their different collocational patterns, an area of usage that is now attracting greater attention of lexicographers than has been the case in the past.
Interestingly, whereas in the name of descriptive lexicography, Webster's Third reported variant pronunciations for words — even some considered "unacceptable' by certain speakers — a similar liberality was not exercised with respect to spelling, and the Third remains, as does every other dictionary of English, as authoritarian as ever in this regard. This is a reflection of the mood of the English language communities: speakers of English tolerate wide variations in pronunciation, but variations in spelling are codified (centre and center, for example, are accepted in different texts, largely determined by regional provenance, but accomodation for accommodation, or principle in the sense of principal, are considered errors despite their widespread 'careless' use). A diversification in pronunciation is an indicator of co-efficiency of individuals' identities; standardization in spelling is what unites the language across the different communities of its speakers.
Okay, I admit it's a little strange to start off this section devoted to "new words or phrases" with the word basic, but in this case, it's not the word so much as the way it's being used. But let's start as the beginning, shall we?
COMMENTARY: Bitchin' about "Basic"
The Webster's Dictionary of the American Language defines basic this way: Basic, adj. of or at the base; forming a base or basis; fundamental; essential.
As you can see, there is nothing in this definition to suggest this modifier should be used to disparage or ridicule anything. Yet, that is precisely how basic has come to be used. When applied to a person, it's an insult, as in, "OMG, Bob is so basic."
In case you're wondering, I'm not writing this because I've been called basic. I haven't … at least not to my face. I'm writing this because this usage came up in a recent conversation and the person who used it — a person who thinks of himself as progressive, enlightened, and just really super cool — should've known better. Anyway, I've been mulling over the use of "basic" as an insult ever since, and I've decided this usage has to die.
Here’s why: every single god damned one of us is and isn’t basic, is and isn’t common, is and isn’t typical, and is and isn’t (… gasp!) average. We all share the same basic needs and each of us has a unique set of quirks, flaws, failings, abilities, behaviors, and talents that makes us unique. To that end, each and every one of us is a variation on a basic, fundamental theme: human. Of course, the people who insist on tossing around basic as an insult know all this, but they don't care. Their intent is to boost their own profile or station by speaking ill of or cutting someone else down, someone they think is somehow beneath them or somehow “less than” they are.
Why do they do it? I think it’s because they’re scared. They’re scared of admitting that they're not special and that, ultimately, they’re just like everyone else. They cannot face the fact that their existence will likely amount to nothing and that, outside their immediate family and friends, no one will care or even know they were here. That is, they cannot cope with their oh-so-common feelings of existential dread. How utterly fucking basic is that?
As a wise person once said, “If you got to tell them you is, you ain’t.” Thus, like the guy wearing wildly outlandish attire who mistakenly assumes he must be looking good because everyone is staring at him, the people who accuse others of being basic can’t see that they aren't anything better. The truth is, there’s nothing more basic than using “basic." You can't elevate your status by punching down or acting like an ass, and to think otherwise is a major tell.
So, how does one escape this confounding labyrinth of basicissitude?
Well, as another wise soul once said, "good work is the key to good fortune," which is a more poetic way of saying, rather than telling people how special you are, the way to actually be an exception is to get off your ass and do something to make a contribution that benefits your fellow humans in some way. That is, the way to be special is to forget about yourself — to abandon any shortcuts to specialty by ridiculous accoutrements (e.g., clothing, haircuts, etc.) or asinine behaviors — and do something that benefits others by bringing them joy, providing a service, etc.
Making a positive mark on your community, or if you’re so fortunate, the world, is the most unique thing a person can do. If you can find a way to do that, you’ll never have to tell them how special you are because they’ll already know.
In the late summer/early fall of 2021, a group of five zebras escaped from a farm in Prince George's County, Maryland — the home county of this very publication. (You may have heard about this as it was all over the news.) Somehow, the zebras managed to stay on the lam for a few months and, during their foray into freedom, the media began to mention that a group of zebras is called a dazzle.
SAY WHAT? (New Words or Words New to Me)
I wondered: is that true? To find out, I went straight for the one book on my shelf that I never thought I'd have much use for: the Dictionary of Animal Words and Phrases. I mean, if any book in the Butter Lamb Reference Library's shelves would be able to fill me in in on dazzle in black and white, this would be it, right?
Wrong. The book says nothing about dazzle. I was shocked! My surprise lessened, however, when I realized the use of dazzle to describe a group of zebras wasn't in any dictionary or reference in my library. How curious!
So, where does this usage come from? I dunno, but MSN.com credits the BBC, which traces this use of dazzle to Juliana Berners, the author of a book on hunting published in 1486. In that text, Berners listed 165 collective nouns for groups of animals and people, one of which is dazzle.
Color me suspicious. If this usage first surfaces in 1486, you'd think it'd get a mention in some other text, even if it was considered a rare or archaic use. Yet, not one book in the Butter Lamb Reference Library has such an entry, including my copy of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Some would-be wordsmith could really earn his or her stripes by getting to the bottom of this.
“Hence a braggart,” What? Needing more information, I consulted my geographical dictionaries, but only one, the Merriam-Webster Geographical Dictionary, had anything about Gascony. Unfortunately, it said nothing about bragging. So, I did a quick Google search. That's where I came across this from Encyclopedia.com.
Gascony. Gascons were traditionally said to be braggarts and boasters as well as impetuous (D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers is a Gascon). Gasconade is a poetic and literary term for extravagant boasting, and comes ultimately from French gasconner ‘talk like a Gascon, brag.’Given the French-ness of the term, I decided to consult the Dictionary of Foreign Terms to see if it had anything to contribute to the conversation. It did:
Gasconade [Fr.], boasting; bragging; braggadocio: so called from gascon, a native of Gascony, the proverbial home of braggarts.This is getting circular, so I'm just going to leave it there.
This was new to me, so I went hunting for it in the shelves of the Butter Lamb Reference Library. Sadly, I came up empty handed, so I cannot verify the accuracy of this post. I did, however, come across the word hurkle in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the definitions it gives (see below) don't seem to have anything to do with lollygagging. On the other hand, I wasn't familiar with hurkle either, so my efforts weren't a total loss.
Hurkle (v.) 1. To draw the limbs and parts of the body closely together, especially with pain or cold; to contract the body like a beast in a storm; to cower, crouch, squat; to shrink, shudder. Said also of the limbs, to be contracted or drawn together. 2. To crouch down upon; to brood over (rare).
Now I know I've seen this word before. I also know it has something to do with speech or speaking, but what exactly it has to do with speech or speaking I couldn't say, so I took my own advice and looked it up. Surprisingly, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary doesn't have an entry for idioglossia (I guess that's why it's shorter). The illustrated Steadman's Medical Dictionary (24th edition) does. And here it is:
Idioglossia n. An extreme form of lalling (i.e., childish utterance or imperfect pronunciation) or vowel or consonant substitution by which the speech of a child may be made unintelligible and appear to be another language to one who has not the key to the literal changes.I gotta be honest: I don't love that definition (sorry Steadman's Medical Dictionary), so I consulted the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology to see what it had to bring to the party. Sadly, its definition wasn't any better.
Idioglossia n. Another name for autonomous speech.
Autonomous speech? What is that? Talking in your sleep? Talking while under hypnosis? Dammit, Jim, I'm not a doctor!
Autonomous speech n. An inverted language understood only by its inventor(s), such as the secret languages sometimes used by twins, especially in their second year of life. Also called idioglossia or cryptophasia.
Okay, so I was way off. But I learned something … a few things … and that's why dictionaries are awesome.
Lachrymose a. 1. Having the nature of tears. 2. Given to tears; tearful, mournfulThat's cool, I guess. (There's something so Oxfordian about the phrase "having the nature of tears" it makes me laugh.) But even cooler, now that I know what it means, is the paragraph in which I encountered it. It was in a fantastic New Yorker article on the original book version of Bambi written by Felix Salten in 1922. Here it is:
Most panegyrics to the solitary life written by men have an element of misogyny in them, and "Bambi" is no exception. Seemingly brave and vivacious in her youth, Faline [Bambi's significant other] grows up to be timid and lachrymose; she "shrieked and shrieked," she "bleated," she is "the hysterical Faline."
I suppose I could have figured out the meaning of lachrymose based on the context of this paragraph, I just didn't want to be presumptuous.
Okay, mission statements are not a new thing and they're not new to me. In fact, I think I've even written a few at jobs over the years. What is new to me, however, is their history. Sometimes, things like mission statements can seem like something from the primordial ooze, an icky and slimy creation that, for whatever reason, has always been with us, like crickets or worms. But no! They're a human invention, and a fairly recent one at that. But don't take my word for it. Check out the following I came across in the August 2, 2021 issue of The New Yorker.
The word "mission" comes from the Latin for "send." In English, historically, a mission is Christian, and means sending the Holy Spirit out into the world to spread the Word of God: a mission involves saving souls. In the seventeenth century, when "mission" first conveyed something secular, it meant diplomacy: emissaries undertake missions. Scientific and military missions and the expression "mission accomplished" date to about the First World War. In 1962, J.F.K. called going to the moon an "untried mission." Mission statements date to the Vietnam War, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff began drafting everchanging objectives for a war known for its purposelessness. (The TV show "Mission: Impossible" débuted in 1966.) After 1973, and at the urging of the management guru Peter Drucker, businesses started writing mission statements as part of the process of "strategic planning," another expression Drucker borrowed from the military. Before long, as higher education was becoming corporatized, mission statements crept into university life. "We are on the verge of mission madness," the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 1979. A decade later, a management journal announced, "Developing a mission statement is an important first step in the strategic planning process." But by the nineteen-nineties corporate mission statements had moved from the realm of strategic planning to public relations. That's a big part of why they're bullshit.
Tetchily is the adverb form of tetchy, another word I wasn't aware of until I came across it in another New Yorker article (which one I don't remember). And what does it mean? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) defines it like this:
Tetchy a. Easily irritated or made angry; quick to take offense; short-tempered; peevish, irritable, testy. 2. Of qualities, actions, etc.: characterized by or proceeding from irritability.
Interestingly enough, the SOED says the word's etymology is "uncertain," which is one of my favorite things to see in a definition because it means I get to check my stack of etymological dictionaries to see if that is indeed correct. I always wonder: is this word's history really uncertain or did whoever wrote this entry just not feel like looking?
In this case, it just might be the latter. Oddly enough, the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories has an entry for tetchy (you'd think if one Oxford dictionary had it, they all would, but what do I know….). It reads:
Tetchy [late 16th century] The word tetchy is probably from a variant of Scots tache 'blotch, fault,' from Old French teche.
Eric Partridge's Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, a whale of a book that many other texts seem to "borrow" from, also traces tetchy back to tache, which it defines as "a spot, a blemish." Partridge also traces the word back to Old French, but then adds that it somehow transformed into Middle English tecche and came to mean "a bad habit." Later, in modern English, it became tetchy, meaning "peevish, irascible."
There seems to be a few etymological leaps of faith here, so maybe it's safest to say the word's origin is uncertain after all.
WORDS AND REFERENCES IN THE NEWS:
"People Who Can't Stop Using This Annoying Phrase Have Very Low Emotional Intelligence"
By Bill Murphy, Jr., Inc.com, December 18, 2021
Do you use the phrase, "Look, I get it" when conversing with someone or when marketing something? If you do, Bill Murphy thinks you have very low emotional intelligence* (and are probably a tremendous jack ass). And why does he think this? His article breaks it down for us world by word.
The word Look, he says, is a "rude interjection."
The word I, in this context, signals that you're not the least bit interested in how your words are coming across to other people.
The word get, used as "a stand-in for understand," signifies a "casual, shorthand, amorphous type of understanding" that pertains only to comprehension, but falls short of "empathy or concern or respect."
Finally, the word it in this phrase "is a pronoun without a reference" that likely refers to the reader's attitude, objections, concerns or whatever it is the author wants to challenge or discount.
But that's not all, says Murphy. The real problem with this phrase is that it's complete and utter bullshit.
As bad as "Look, I get it" is, however, what comes next reaches the heights of absurdity and pure lack of emotional intelligence. Because, in almost all cases, "Look, I get it" is an antecedent for a straw man. It introduces a weak argument, formulated by someone who wants to overcome it, in a way that makes it a lot easier to defeat.Murphy is not wrong here. "Look, I get it" is shorthand for: "I assume you feel this way about x,y, or z, but I'm not going to take the time to ask and actually find out." But I find this less an indicator of low emotional intelligence than a symptom of our times. "Look, I get it" is really no different from listicles that begin with absurd sentences like, "Everyone wants a winning email strategy," or "Everyone wants to land that big job with the corner office." The communications technologies of the Digital Age have diminished much of the population's ability to concentrate and few are interested in reading anything longer than a few paragraphs. This means that marketing writers need to get to the point quickly and phrases like "Look, I get it" or "Haven't you had enough of" or "Don't you hate it when …," presumptuous and rude as they are, help writers do that. This is the world we've chosen.
But — and this is important — it means that the entire premise of "Look, I get it," is almost always inherently untrue.
* In case you're wondering what emotional intelligence is, the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines it this way: [The] ability to monitor one's own and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.
"A History of the Thesaurus"
Addison Rizer, Book riot.com, Jan 18, 2022
Thanks to a lot of recently published history on the subject, we know how dictionaries came to be. But other references? Maybe not so much. Addison Rizer took a nice step toward remedying that with an article in book riot about the history of thesauri. I'm not going to try to recap the who thing for you here (you can find it online at bookriot.com/history-of-the-thesaurus), but I will share some of its more interesting factoids. For example:
The word thesaurus as we understand it today has evolved over the years. From the Greek thēsauros, meaning “treasury” or “storehouse.”
People in the Middle Ages used the word “Thesaurer” to refer to a treasurer. Therefore, back then, the word thesaurus referred to places that stored a treasury of words.
At first, thesauri were more akin to dictionaries. In the 1590s, “thesaurarie” was a title given to early dictionary compilers. 16th century “printer to the king” Robert Estienne published the Thesaurus linguae latinae, which was a compilation of Latin words and their meanings.
Thesauri didn't become the catalogs of synonyms that we know them to be until the 19th century, when English physician and philologist Peter Mark Roget published the Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in 1852.
Roget was born on January 18, 1779, that's why January 18th is Thesaurus Day.
It took 47 years to complete the first draft and, once published, Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print.
From "dad bod" to "amirite": These Are the New Words Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
By Caitlin O'Kane
October 28, 2021 / 9:34 AM / CBS News
In the previous issue of The Butter Lamb News, I mentioned the ongoing tension between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries (that is, the debate as to whether dictionaries ought to prescribe how the language is used rather that describe how it is used) and suggested there ought to be a third, context-dependent or case-specific option wherein lexicographers would consider each word on its own before casting it into the dust bin of language history or enshrining it in a dictionary for the next 50 years. Articles like this one about the new words added to the dictionary from CBS news are a prime example of why I think we need this third option.
"Dad bod" and "amirite" are certainly in circulation nowadays, there's no disputing that, but will they be in 10 or 20 years? I doubt it. Let's face it, these are trendy words and their lifespan is short. Do we really need them hanging around to remind us of how shallow and faddish we are? I mean, "amirite" is on its way out now and those who look back on it (and those who used it) in five years will only do so mockingly. Alas, like the mayfly, wildflowers, and Pauly Shore, the some things are meant to live only a short time.
Anyway, according to this article, 455 words were added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2021. They include:
Abbreviations like "TBH" (to be honest) and "FTW" (for the win)Do with this information what you will but, TBH, it seems most of these words are regrettable, forgettable nonsense.
Slang terms like "amirite"
New usages for old words, such as "because" to capture the "humorous ways" they are used. Such as, "The process works because science"
Food-related words, such as "fluffernutter"
Political slang, such as "vote-a-rama," which means "an unusually large number of debates and votes that happen in one day on a single piece of legislation to which an unlimited number of amendments can be introduced, debated, and voted on."
Pop culture terms like "faux-hawk" and "dad bod"
"As Trial Approaches, Judge May Allow the Men Kyle Rittenhouse Shot to be Called 'Rioters' or 'Looters' — but 'Victim' Isn't Allowed"
By Jenn Selva and Kelly McCleary, CNN, October 27, 2021
To be fair (even though I don't think I ought to be), I can understand why the judge would find the word victim prejudicial. After all, victims are often seen as hapless, unlucky, and pitiable sorts who are in need of some kind of charity or help. However, because I also have dictionaries at my disposal, I know that this is only one way to interpret the word.
For example, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines victim as
1. A living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power. 2. A person who is put to death or subjected to torture by another; one who suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment.Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers the same sense pertaining to deities and supernatural powers and adds, one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language also includes a definition about sacrificing people to gods and adds:
1. Someone or something killed, destroyed, injured, or otherwise harmed by or suffering from some act, condition, agency, or circumstance. 2. A person who suffers from some loss, especially by being swindled.Finally, the American Heritage Dictionary defines victim as:
1. One who is harmed or killed by another. 2. A living creature slain and offered as a sacrifice during a religious rite. 3. Someone or something killed, destroyed, injured, or otherwise harmed by or suffering from some act, condition, agency, or circumstance. 4. A person who suffers injury, loss, or death as a result of a voluntary undertaking. 5. A person who is tricked or swindled.As this survey of the senses of victim shows, one can clearly define a victim in a straightforward and matter-of-fact manner, as in "one who is harmed or killed by another. Further, I think it's safe to say that this is how most people would define the word, so for the judge to suggest otherwise is a giant load of hot steamy bullshit. Thus, it seems bizarre to me that the court system in Wisconsin (the location of the trial) would allow such nonsense.
Yet apparently it does. According to the article, "Here's why people shot by Kyle Rittenhouse can be called "rioters," "looters" and "arsonists" – but not 'victims' at trial" (CBS News, October 27), barring particular words from use at trial occurs at the "judge's discretion." The article gives other reasons too, such as the charge of first-degree reckless endangerment that Rittenhouse faced. I don't know enough about the law to rule on this effectively, however, it does make me wonder if the Wisconsin court system knows what specious means.
NEW ADDITIONS TO THE BUTTER LAMB REFERENCE LIBRARY
Edited by Clement Wood
Billed as the "essential handbook for poets and song writers," The Complete Rhyming Dictionary does indeed look "complete." That said …
Boasting more than 600 pages,
To read it through you must be courageous.
Nevertheless, I say and not in jest,
That this book here may be the best
Of the rhyming dictionaries I have on my shelf,
For there are two to which I've treated myself.
All seem to function in much the same way,
Divided by vowel sounds so one can then say,
That this rhymes with that and the one with the other.
So don't be afraid,
Don't run for cover
If you need to find
A word for a rhyme,
Just reach for this book
And I think you will find
Something to ease your poetic conundrums
So you won't have to listen to them fools or those dum-dums.
Alas, this poem is getting absurd!
But I'd like you to recall one thing that you've heard:
If a rhyming dictionary is something you covet
Then get your hands on this book 'cause I think you will love it.
Sorry, where was I ….
One of the things that makes this book so complete, at least from a poetic point of view, is that first 110 or so pages provide some rather in-depth instruction on poetry composition, covering everything from the use of accent and rhythm and the different types of rhyme to stanza patterns and different types of technique. So, if you're looking for a book that helps you compose poems in addition to merely finding words that rhyme, you might want to give this book a look. (Clearly, I don't need it.)
Dictionary of Lexicography (1998)
R.R.K Hartmann and Gregory James
While not a dictionary of dictionaries, the Dictionary of Lexicography is pretty close. The book:
… examines both the theoretical and practical aspects of its subject, and how they are related. In the realm of dictionary research the authors highlight the history, criticism, typology, structures, and use of dictionaries. They consider the subjects of data-collection and corpus technology, definition-writing and editing, and presentation and publishing in relation to dictionary-making.
This is true. The Dictionary of Lexicography does indeed provide this information. At the same time, I can't help but think the authors tried to "pad" the number of entries in the book by including some tangentially related terms, such as "manual" (defined as "a handbook"), "reader" ("one engaged in reading,") and "spell checker" ("an application in a text-processing system which highlights the deviations in orthography and suggests appropriate standard forms.") Uh….
Despite such frivolous entries, the Dictionary of Lexicography has a lot of good stuff. It also offers … wait for it … a list of more than 2,000 titles of "representative literature" (i.e., dictionaries and other references), which makes it something close to the dictionary of dictionaries in my dreams!
In short, the Dictionary of Lexicography provides a comprehensive and thorough overview of and/or introduction to the field, so if you're a dictionary nerd like I am, this book probably belongs in your collection.
Dreyer’s English (2019)
I'M GOING TO LET YOU IN ON A LITTLE SECRET:
I hate grammar.
Well, OK, not quite true, I don't hate grammar. I hate grammar jargon.
I suspect that I'm not the only person currently reading this page who was not especially well trained, back in school days, in the ins and outs of grammar. When I started out as a copy editor, I realized that most of what I knew about grammar I knew instinctively That is, I knew how most-certainly not all of the grammar things worked; I simply didn't know what they were called.
Even now I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what a nominative absolute is, I think that the word "genitive" sounds vaguely smutty, and I certainly don't know, or care to know, how to diagram a sentence.
I hope I'm not shocking you.
But at a certain point I figured that if I was going to be fixing grammar for a living, I might do well to learn a little something about it, and that's precisely what I did: I learned a little something about it. As little as I needed to. I still, at the slightest puzzlement, run back to my big fat stylebooks, and likely always will.
I do believe, though, that if as a writer you know how to do a thing, it's not terribly important that you know what it's called. So in this chapter-covering the grammar stumbles I tend to run into most frequently -- I'll do my best to keep the information as simple and applicable as possible and skip the terminology.
And this is precisely what Mr. Dreyer does. Not just in this chapter, but throughout the entire book. What a relief! I’ve read other books on grammar and usage and they sometimes left me feeling like a scolded child. It’s was as if their priggish authors were saying, "How could you do such a thing?!?" I haven't felt that way reading Dreyer's English (I'm about halfway through at the time of this writing) and I don't think you will either. Recommended.
Geektionary seems more akin to a trivia guide or "bathroom" book than a full-fledged dictionary, but I'm counting it here as offers an alphabetical list of "more than 1,000 words to understand goobs, gamers, orkdorks, and technofreaks." Mmmm, okay….
Gregory Bergman and Josh Lambert
I have to confess, I grabbed this without really looking at it while searching through piles of books at a large and populated used book sale. Initially, I thought the authors were using "geek" the same way Best Buy uses "geek" — as a synonym for someone who knows things about computers and digital culture. Only now have I realized that the authors are using "geek" as a reference to a type of person (or persons), such as the guys on the Big Bang Theory, who are into computers and digital culture, as well as science fiction and fantasy, science, technology, and comic books, etc. Live and learn, I guess.
As you'd expect, the words defined (or maybe “explained”) in the book are listed in alphabetical order. However, the text is broken up into sections — science fiction and fantasy, sports, computers and cyberspace, and television and movies — which means if you want to know what panels are, you first have to know that they are found in comic books. This knowledge would then compel you to go to chapter three, which is devoted to comic books. I find this a faulty way to organize a book published (one would assumed) to help the uninitiated learn about this stuff.
The Dictionary of Classical Mythology (1986)
I get it though, the Greek and Roman myths are the most fertile of fertile ground for literature and storytelling. Who knows how many stories, whether in the form of books or plays or movies, they've inspired? In addition, folks are always coming out with new interpretations or new analyses of these stories, making them seem timeless and inexhaustible. In fact, it’s likely the new interpretations and stories inspired by the old tales feed the interest in these dictionaries. This brings me back to Grimal and his dictionary. It is, by the looks of it, a serious piece of scholarship. It's more than 450 oversized pages, the list of references is enormous, and the entries for some of the more well-known and perhaps well-studied terms (e.g., Argonauts) go on for several pages. To a non-scholar like me, it all looks pretty impressive … just maybe not as impressive as the tome offered by Mr. Seyffert, which in addition to be being another impressive work of scholarship, is simply a beautiful book to behold.
Of course, the real test would be to compare of the information in Grimal's dictionary with that found in the others. I haven't done that yet, but experience tells me this book would hold its own, and likely add a nugget or two of information the others in my collection don't have (and vice-versa). This, incidentally, is why it's good to have more than one of these things on hand.
The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought (1977)
Edited by Alan Bullock & Oliver Stallybrass
I wonder if Bullock and Stallybrass, the editors of the Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought, found themselves in a similar situation. I don't have to wonder about their megalomania. Just consider the following excerpt from the preface of their dictionary:
The idea of a dictionary of modern thought springs from the recognition of two facts. The first is that all of us are ignorant of whole areas of modern thought. In an age of specialization this may be as true of a Nobel Laureate as it is of a college freshman - a point driven home in a letter written to one of the editors by one of the Nobel Laureate contributors to this volume, Sir Peter Medawar: 'I am looking forward immensely to the publication of the Dictionary, because there are a whole lot of things I should like to look up myself.: The second fact is that most of us never quite give up the attempt, however sporadic, to explore our areas of ignorance. But as soon as we venture outside our own territory we encounter a formidable barrier of language, of unfamiliar terms and concepts, and of unexplained allusions that puzzle and frustrate us.
Where do we go for help? An ordinary dictionary helps a little, but its definitions are necessarily brief and formal, and make no attempt to set the words defined in their intellectual, historical, or cultural context. Also, an ordinary dictionary has to be comprehensive in its coverage, and must therefore include thousands of words familiar to us all. If, on the other hand, we turn to an encyclopedia, which for most of us will mean a visit to a library, we may need to thread our way through a vast amount of irrelevant material. The present volume steers a middle course between an ordinary dictionary and an encyclopedia. It takes some 4,000 key terms from across the whole range of modern thought, sets them within their context, and offers short explanatory accounts (anything from ten to a thousand words) written by experts, but in language as simple as can be used without over-simplification or distortion. All this is done within a single pair of covers; but the reader who wishes to pursue an enquiry further is enabled to do so, not only by numerous cross-references, but by the carefully selected reading-lists which have been provided in appropriate cases.
For these chaps, "modern" means 20th century, so they see their book as a something of a handy guide that can provide a superficial level of knowledge in "whole areas of modern thought." (Wow!)
So, does it deliver on its promise? Of course not. Yet, whether someone in 1977 (the year of this tome's publication) thought it could is another story but, to me, this book feels like little more than a relic from a by-gone and (less cynical) era.
PS.) If there’s a better name for a lexicographer than Oliver Stallybrass, I haven’t heard it.
Liar’s Dictionary (2020)
Mountweazel (n.), the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.Mountweazles aren't a real thing, but they do feature prominently in The Liar's Dictionary, a work of fiction centered on the life of Mallory, a young intern whose job it is to find these mountweazles before they end up online. Of course, there's a lot more to this book that the search for these fake words. And since I don't believe in reinventing the wheel, I'll give you the skinny on this book by reproducing the text from the inside flap of the book jacket instead of trying to remember what happened in a book I read several months ago.
In the final year of the nineteenth century, Peter Winceworth is toiling away at the letter S for Swansby's multivolume Encyclopedic Dictionary Increasingly uneasy that his colleagues are attempting to corral language and regiment facts, Winceworth feels compelled to assert some sense of individual purpose artistic freedom, and begins inserting unauthorized, fictitious entries into the dictionary.What I can tell you about this book is that I devoured it. It's a page-turner and a fun read, and if you like mysteries and dictionaries, and if you could use a diversion from the seemingly nonstop deluge of bad news that falls on us day after day, I think you'll devour it too. Also recommended.
In the present day, Mallory, a young intern employed by the publisher, must uncover these mountweazels before the work is digitized for modern readers. Through the wordand s and their definitions, she begins to sense their creator's motivations, hopes and desires. More pressingly, she also has to contend with threatening phone calls from an anonymous caller. Is the change in the definition of marriage (n.) really that controversial? And does the caller truly intend for the Swansby's staff to "burn in hell"?
As these two narratives combine, Winceworth and Mallory, separated by one hundred years, must discover how to negotiate the complexities of the often untrustworthy, hoax-strewn and undefinable path we call life. An exhilarating and laugh-out-loud debut, The Liar's Dictionary celebrates the rigidity, fragility, absurdity and joy of language while peering into questions of identity and finding one's place in the world.
Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words (1974)
Josefa Heifetz Byrne
Brevirostrate adj. having a short nose
Effodient adj. burrowing
Hypnomogia n. insomnia
Justaucorps n. (singular and plural), 17th century tight-fitting jacket
Morbific adj. causing disease
Palinoia n. compulsive repetition of an act until it’s perfect
Sottise n. foolish behavior
Okay, so not all of the words in this book are usual, obscure, or preposterous. Some you will undoubtedly recognize depending on your academic background, hobbies, or interests. Nevertheless, if you're looking for a book of 10-, 20-, and even 50-cent words, you might want to check this out.
Wordsworth Dictionary of Dreams (1994)
Gustavus Hindman Miller
But does it? As any dream interpreter worth his or her salt knows, the meaning of a dream depends on a great many things, such as your personal circumstances, your familiarity or relationship to a particular object or symbol, and so on. To his credit, Mr. Miller acknowledges this too, for as he writes in the preface to this volume, "Dreams transpire on the subjective plane. They should therefore be interpreted by subjective intelligence." This means, as he writes a little later on:
… if the dream symbol indicates wealth or fortune to the peasant, his waking life may be gladdened by receiving or seeing a 50-cent piece or finding assuring work, while the same symbol to a wealthy man would mean many dollars, or a favorable turn in affairs.Yet, it's odd to me that Miller's interpretations don't seem to include this awareness of subjectivity. Because of that, I find it disingenuous to suggest that this one book can tell you what your dream might have been about, or even what something in your dream might have meant. The best you can do is consult multiple of books on the subject (and there are a lot of them out there), see where they agree and/or overlap, consider how the dream made you feel (did you wake up happy or sad? Were you frightened or having fun in the dream?) and then apply all of the information to your own life with a humongous grain of salt.
It's worth noting that the best dream dictionaries are those that invite such skepticism and call attention to the subjectivity in dream interpretation. The books that do that use language like, "If the orangutan in your dream was friendly, it could mean …. " The books that don't use language like, "an orangutan in your dream means …." The Wordsworth Dictionary of Dreams falls into this later category.
THE LAST WORD:
From Jonathon Green, in Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made
“While dictionary and occasionally lexicon are the current words of choice when describing a wordbook arranged in alphabetical order, there have been a number of contenders for that role. Among the titles given to wordbooks have been an abecedarium (an alphabetical order), an alseary (a beehive), a catbolicon (a cure-all), an ortus (a garden), a medulla (a marrow or pith), a glossary, a manipulus (a handful), a syla (a wood), apromptuarim or a thesauras (both a treasury or store- house), a vocabulary and a vulgar (a common thing)."
Unfortunately, being told how I feel during the pandemic is only one of the problems I have with the article, “Acedia: The Lost Word for the Emotion We’re All Feeling Right Now” that appeared on the website The Conversation on August 26, 2020. Another, and more significant, issue is that a good portion of the article’s premise — that the word acedia has been “lost to time and translation” — is flat out wrong.
Before I get to that, though, I’d like to assert that I do agree with the rest of the author’s point. Acedia, a word that describes a sort of anxious listlessness, is particularly useful in describing how a lot of people seem to be feeling during this ongoing pandemic. This is understandable. The pandemic has lasted for close to a year and it’s clear from the number of folks I see out and about, a lot of folks have had enough. In short, this pandemic shit is getting old.
Mr. Zecher, who is not so blunt, puts it this way:
No one is posting pictures of their sourdough. Zoom cocktail parties have lost their novelty. Netflix can only release so many new series. The news seems worse every day, yet we compulsively scroll through it.
We get distracted by social media yet have a pile of books unread. We keep meaning to go outside but somehow never find the time. We’re bored, listless, afraid and uncertain.
“What is this feeling?” Zecher asks, forgetting he put the answer in the title of his article. Why, it’s acedia, of course, and as Zecher rightfully points out, humans have known about it since the 5th century, when a monk and theologian by the name of John Cassian took the time to describe it.
A mind “seized” by this emotion is “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room … It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading.” He feels … “such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast … Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.”
To Zecher’s ears, this description sounds “eerily familiar,” because it “so aptly describes our current state.”
Well, maybe his state, or some people’s state, but not my state. But, again, I get where Zecher is coming from and I get the gist of his article: A dude back in the 5th century wrote about feeling the same way a lot of folks feel now in the 21st — ain’t that a pip! I guess everything old really IS new again.
Yet, Zecher isn’t content to leave it at that. He feels compelled to go a step further and claim, “the name that so aptly describes our current state was lost to time and translation.”
He shouldn’t have.
What possessed Zecher to make such a claim I cannot say, but he’s wrong. The word acedia has not been lost to either time or translation. It has been with us for centuries, quietly perhaps, but it’s been there, and the evidence is ample.
To begin, if you really want to know if a word has been “lost to time and translation,” then you ought to consult a dictionary, or better yet, dictionaries. Since I have more than a few, I consulted several to see what they had to say about the word, its history, and use.
The two oldest dictionaries in my collection, Nuttall’s Dictionary of the English Language (1872) and Donohue’s Standard New Century Dictionary of the English Language (1914), do not have an entry for acedia, but most of the later references do. The National Dictionary (1940) has it. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary (1971) has an entry for acedy (which it associates with acedia) but labels the word as both “obsolete” and “rare.” Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1961) has an entry for acedia free from such cautionary labels. It’s a similar story with the Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary (1966), the American Heritage Dictionary (1969), The Oxford English Reference Dictionary (2002), and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, 2003). Interestingly, the Dictionary of Obsolete English did not contain an entry for acedia, which suggests it has not fallen out of use. Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the word does not appear in either the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology (1983) or the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (2001). It can be found, however, in the Psychiatric Dictionary (1989), but this book describes the term as “obsolete” too. (Thus, if the term has indeed been lost, perhaps it’s just the members of the psychiatric establishment who can no longer find it, or no longer wish to.)
I will admit that, when it comes to the term’s use, these are somewhat mixed results. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that a word purported to be “lost to history” would not regularly appear in dictionaries from 1940 to the (near) present.
So much, then, for the word being lost to time, but what about translation? Here Zecher fares a bit better. In his article he notes that, although Cassian’s use of the term makes it “sound like apathy,” a close reading of the monk’s description “shows that acedia is much more daunting and complex than that.” To wit, Zecher defines acedia as the “strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate.”
The dictionaries at my disposal aren’t so exacting, but they are rather unified in their association of acedia with physical and spiritual listlessness and/or apathy. The Oxford English Reference Dictionary (2002) defines it simply as “listlessness,” whereas Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “apathy, boredom.” Things get a little livelier in the Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, which defines the term as, “a pathological mental or spiritual torpor” and “sloth regarded as one of the seven deadly sins.” The American Heritage Dictionary plays along and defines acedia as “spiritual torpor; ennui,” and, finally, the National Dictionary provides my favorite definition, “an abnormal condition of the mind, characterized by lassitude, listlessness, and general indifference; the sin of sloth (one of the seven deadly sins).”
Clearly, none of these definitions say anything about “undirected anxiety” or the “inability to concentrate,” although I would argue feelings of “listlessness” would include an inability to focus and stay on task. So, while Zecher may be right that Cassian’s concept of acedia was more nuanced and textured than it seems to be today, it’s a stretch to say we moderns lack sufficient understanding of what acedia means.
It’s an even further stretch to claim, as Zecher does, that the word is “barely used today.”
Again, that’s just not true.
As Zecher rightfully points out, acedia was commonly referred to as “the noonday demon,” because it was said to impede the ability of monks to concentrate on their studies at this time of day, leading them toward the silkiest of the seven deadly sins, sloth (as noted in some of the dictionary definitions mentioned above). Zecher’s awareness of this phrase, “noonday demon,” is important because it should have tipped him off to the existence of a book by Andrew Solomon titled … you guessed it … The Noonday Demon. This book, which details the author’s experience of severe depression, was published in 2001, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and thus was both well-known and widely available (I got a copy at a Barnes and Noble). In addition, the religion writer Kathleen Norris authored the book Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life in 2010, which got a fair amount of press in religious circles because Norris is an oblate monk. Given that Zecher is a research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, it seems like he should have known about both these texts. Further, a quick Google search reveals that there are also several other books that discuss the subject of acedia (or at least have the word in their titles), so to say the word is “barely used today,” is absurd.
It’s also worth pointing out that, at least in the cases of Solomon and Norris, these writers don’t just use acedia in their books haphazardly, as a synonym for depression or melancholy. Both authors make it clear they are aware of John Cassian and his writings on the subject and, as a result, both use the term quite deliberately. (I know this because Solomon devotes a couple pages to Cassian in his book and Norris discusses her awareness of the monk and his writings during a 2018 interview with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought. Indeed, the interview is itself proof that word is still in use today.)
Okay, so Zecher is wrong … really wrong … on this last account. Why do I care so damn much?
Well, despite my snark-filled tone, I’m not out to take Mr. Zecher down a peg. (Really, I’m not.) Again, I am not quibbling with his assessment that acedia just might be the perfect word to describe what some folks appear to be feeling as they cope with pandemic-born isolation and inactivity. I will even agree that acedia is likely a lesser-known word compared to its synonyms (e.g., depression, melancholy, lethargy, listlessness, stagnation, and so on.) Nevertheless, what bothers me about Zecher’s take is, isn’t the word’s relative obscurity enough? Why tack on the bit about the word being lost to history or translation when (A) it just isn’t true, and (B) it’s not that hard to prove otherwise?
That said, I want to cut this dude some slack. It’s tough to be a writer these days. There is a lot of competition out there and coming up with a new angle for a pitch is hard. At the same time, I can’t help but feel that after four years of the Trump administration’s lies and scores of politicians and conspiracy theorists taking to the airwaves and social media to spout falsehoods about everything from the election to the COVID-19 vaccine, the world could use a little less bullshit—and I expect people with the title of “researcher” to help us eliminate it.
Note: This item first appeared in issue #3 of Alternative Incite magazine
… There was a time, five or six hundred years ago, when melancholy was identified with the Roman god Saturn. To be depressed was to be “in Saturn,” and a person chronically disposed to melancholy was known as a “child of Saturn.” […] These melancholic thoughts are are deeply rooted in Saturn’s preference for days gone by, for memory and the sense that time is passing. These thoughts and feelings, sad as they are, favor the soul’s desire to be both in time and in eternity, and so in a strange way, can be pleasing.
In traditional texts, Saturn is characterized as cold and distant … Saturn was also traditionally identified with the metal lead, giving the soul weight and density, allowing the light, airy elements to coalesce…. As we age, our ideas, formerly light and rambling, and unrelated to each other, become more densely gathered into values and philosophy, giving our lives substance and firmness.
For whatever reason, these words of Moore’s have stuck with me and I’ve become a little obsessed with this notion of a sort of “god of melancholy.” So, naturally, I dug into the reference section of my library to learn more about this god of yore and to see if what Moore had to say about him was accurate.
What I found, not surprisingly perhaps, were differing myths surrounding Saturn and a rich symbolic history that seems to contradict the myths without completely destroying the somewhat tenuous, yet highly visible thread that weaves its way through and unites them all.
Here are a few excerpts demonstrating both those contradictions and unifying themes.
Saturn symbolizes time, with its ravenous appetite for life, devours all its creations, whether they are beings, things, ideas or sentiments. He is also symbolic of the insufficiency, in the mystic sense, of any order of existence within the plane of the temporal, or the necessity for the “reign of Cronos” to be succeeded by another cosmic mode of existence in which time has no place. Time brings restlessness–the sense of duration lasting from the moment of stimulus up to the instant of satisfaction. Hence Saturn is symbolic of activity, of slow, implacable dynamism, of realization and communication; and this is why he is said to have devoured his children and why he is related to the Ouroboros (or the serpent which bites its own tail). Other attributes are the oar (standing for navigation nad progress in things temporal), the hourglass and the scythe. In the scythe we can detect a double meaning: first, its function of cutting parallel to and corroborating the symbolism of devouring; and, secondly, its curved shape, which invariably corresponds to the feminine principle. This is why … Saturn takes on the same characteristic ambiguity of gender and sex, and is related to the earth, the sarcophagus and putrefaction, as well as the color black…. Saturn is in every case, a symbol of the law of limitation which gives shape to life, or the localized expression in time and space of the universal life.
A very old Italian god identified with Cronus. He was said to have come from Greece to Italy in very early times, when Jupiter dethroned him and hurled him from Olympus. He established himself on the Capitol, on the site of Rome, and founded a village there, which bore the name of Saturnia. The reign of Saturn was extremely prosperous. This was the Golden Age. Saturn taught people how to cultivate the ground…. He was depicted armed with a scythe and his name was was associated with the invention of viticulture. He was, however, sometimes considered as a god of the underworld.
[Speaking of his reign in Italy …] Men lived like the gods, without care, in uninterrupted happiness, health, and strength; they did not grow old; and to them death was a slumber which relieved them of their present nature and transformed them into daemons. The earth yielded every kind of fruit and gave up all its treasures without cultivation or labor. Under the reign of Saturn, men lived a life of paradise.