Butter Lamb News - Issue #1


Front Matter  

Dictionary and Reference News 

Say What? 

New Additions to the
Butter Lamb Reference Library

From the Scriptures

You get a PDF version of Issue #1 here.



If digging into the definitions and etymologies of words for shits and giggles wasn’t enough of an advertisement for my uncoolness, consider this: I like to read the forwards and introductions of dictionaries (and other references).

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What’s the matter, Joe, can’t find any golf to watch on the TV?” Point taken. Admittedly, dictionary introductions can be rather dull affairs. Every so often, though, I come across one so full of attitude, opinion, and (dare I say) snark that it deserves to some attention. Hence the following extended excerpt from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969), which I chose to highlight because it demonstrates the editors’ passion for dictionaries and contains some interesting ideas that reveal the editors’ beliefs about the role dictionaries ought to play our world — and the dictionary marketplace. 


Introduction: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969)

At a time when the language, already a historical melting pot, is under constant challenge — from the scientist, the bureaucrat, the broadcaster, the innovator of every political stripe, even the voyager in space — the [editors of the American Heritage Publishing Company] undertook to prepare a new dictionary. It would faithfully record our language, the duty of any lexicographer, but it would not, like so many others in these permissive times, rest there. On the contrary, it would add the essential dimension of guidance, that sensible guidance toward grace and precision which intelligent people seek in a dictionary. They will find it here, in a dictionary that is in many respects a notable departure from previous British and American lexicographical practice.

To many people, the dictionary is a forbidding volume, a useful but bleak compendium, to be referred to hastily for needed information, such as spelling and pronunciation. Yet, what a dictionary ought to be is a treasury of information about every aspect of words, our most essential tools of communication. It should be an agreeable companion. By knowledgeable use of the dictionary, we should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of meaning are today, and its social status. […]

A major concern of the editors has been the language used in the word definitions themselves. Our aim has been to phrase definitions in concise, lucid prose. Here, too, we have undertaken to eliminate “dictionary shorthand”—the frustrating signs, symbols, and abbreviations that are commonplace in other dictionaries. Except for a few obvious abbreviations (n. for noun, v. for verb, and the like), we have followed a policy of spelling out all definitions. Where necessary to clarify a meaningful or idiomatic usage, the editors have included an example, either quoted from literature or staff written. We have also eliminated the meaningless lists of undefined compound forms which serve, in many American dictionaries, merely the purpose of inflating the so-called “entry count.” […]

A primary aim of our staff has been to make this dictionary as readable as we possibly could. We editors know that dictionaries can be fascinating. Working closely with them day by day, we see the vast amounts of interesting information that many users are not aware of, usually because it is hard to work one’s way through the thorny underbrush of conventional sign language to find the treasure that lies buried in the entries. It is our earnest hope that, by presenting our dictionary in inviting and readily readable fashion, without any lessening of authority, we will encourage the reader to explore and enjoy the riches of our remarkable tongue. 

This except fascinating for several reasons. First, I was struck by the author’s assertion that “the language … is under constant challenge.” For editors of a dictionary, “challenge” is interesting choice given that, save for the specter of euphemistic language, whose intent is to obfuscate and befuddle, the English language isn’t under constant “challenge,” it’s merely expanding. To believe that it is under some kind of assault says more about the writer than the language itself. So does the writer’s use of the phrase “these permissive times,” which is a bit of an elbow-in-the-ribs referral to the Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1961), which was considered by many in the lexicography community to be too (you guessed it) “permissive” because it didn’t instruct readers in the ways of “proper” English. Chief among the no-no’s found in Webster’s 3rd is the inclusion of the word “ain’t” (gasp, the horror!).

This gets us to the ongoing debate about whether dictionaries should be “prescriptive” or “descriptive”; that is, whether dictionaries ought to prescribe how the words in English ought to be used rather than describe how the words that comprise the English language are used. The former (prescriptivists) are seen by their opponents as stodgy, anal-retentive types who fear the debasement of the language and (by extension) the decay of the social fabric, while the latter (descriptivists) are seen by their opponents as lacking in standards and guilty of shirking their duties as guardians of our remarkable tongue. (For more on this, see Kory Stamper’s Word by Word). Given the use of phrases like, “sensible guidance toward grace and precision,” or to put it another way, definitions that are accurate and words that are acceptable, you can guess which side of the debate the editorial staff of the American Heritage Dictionary come down on.

Do words have “social status”? Yes, which is why most dictionaries let you know if a word or its use is considered “archaic,” “obsolete,” “informal,” and the like. This too is something of a dig at the Webster’s 3rd, which critics also chastised for eliminating the labels “colloquial,” “correct,” “incorrect,” “proper,” “improper,” “erroneous,” “humorous,” “jocular,” “poetic,” “contemptuous,” and so on.

Labels are one thing, so-called “dictionary shorthand” is quite another. Do readers really find the signs, symbols, and abbreviations commonly found in dictionary definitions “frustrating”? I suppose it’s possible. Of course, dictionaries that use such abbreviations typically include a key or guide that defines what these signs and symbols mean. It seems to me that if a person takes the time to look up a word, then they are probably willing to take another moment to look up the meaning of an abbreviation.

I also find it hard to believe that people who use dictionaries would care about the number of entries in one reference versus another, so it seems ridiculous that a dictionary publisher would go to the trouble of “inflating” a dictionary’s entry count. Yet, history shows that dictionary publishers have indeed done so. For proof of such behavior, one need only take a look at the historic dictionary advertisements (you can find them online) that boast about the number of entries their dictionary contains compared to the competition. (Stamper’s Word by Word has more on this too.)

Admittedly, my comments about the ideas at play in this excerpt portray dictionary publishing as something of a catty and sordid affair, but they also point to a very real dilemma with which the dictionary publishers of the time had to grapple. As the sentence fragment, “presenting our dictionary in inviting and readily readable fashion, without any lessening of authority,” suggests, before the days of online dictionaries, dictionary publishers worked hard to balance authority and scholarship with the demands of the marketplace. Hence the use of images, illustrations, and other graphic design techniques to make these typically large books more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. (I didn’t include it here, but other parts of this introduction mention the editors’ “fresh approach” that incorporates “the most recent advances in typographic design and printing.”)

On a happier note, it’s nice to know that the editors and publishers of such references cared enough about their readers and are actively chose to make the books at the heart of their livelihoods engaging to their audiences. It’s easy to forget, but there are actual humans behind these massive tomes and, given expressions like, “We editors know that dictionaries can be fascinating,” it’s clear that they love what they do and want to share their word nerd-ism with the world.

We at the Dictionary Appreciation Society of Laurel Maryland don’t necessarily agree with the American Heritage Dictionary editor’s rather prescriptive approach to lexicography (forever the free-thinkers, we have staked out a middle-ground between the two camps), but we do share their fascination with dictionaries and general word nerd-ity. We hope you do too … and if you’re reading this, it’s likely our hope is not in vain.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the first issue of our newsletter.



Can You Define Life? Should You Even Try?

Elsewhere in this newsletter, I pose the question, What is cheugy? It’s a frivolous query and kind of a waste of time. A much more important question is, What is life? Yet, life and chueginess (chuegeneity?) have something in common: they’re both hard to define. They both have a “you know it when you see it,” kind of a vibe, but while one of these things (chueginess) has no bearing on anything whatsoever, the other (life) is of the utmost importance.

The struggle to define life takes center stage in the article, “What Is Life? It’s Vast Diversity Defies Description,” which appeared on the Quanta Magazine website on March 9, 2021. The article details the effort among scientists from disciplines across the scientific community to define life, and the many hurdles they’ve faced – and continue to face – along the way.

Why try to define life at all? It’s a good question. Afterall, we tend to know when something’s alive and when it isn’t. However, in those instances were we humans are trying to create or find life, be it artificial or otherwise, a definition of life would help us know if and or when we’ve succeeded. The microbiologist Radu Popa puts it this way:

You can take a science in which there are two or three definitions for one thing, but a science in which the most important object has no definition? That’s absolutely unacceptable. How are we going to discuss it if you believe that the definition of life has something to do with DNA, and I think it has something to do with dynamic systems? We cannot make artificial life because we cannot agree on what life is. We cannot find life on Mars because we cannot agree what life represents.”

Philosophers have tried to weigh in and calm the debate by suggesting that there is no need to create “one true definition of life,” and arguing that “working definitions are good enough.”  

 NASA can come up with whatever definition helps them build the best machine for searching for life on other planets and moons. Physicians can use a different one to map the blurry boundary that sets life apart from death.

However. other philosophers found this way of thinking something of a cop‐out. They acknowledge that defining life is hard, but say that was no reason not to try. “Working definitions are not a substitute for a proper definition of life,” they said.

I won’t spoil the article by trying to recap the rest of it for you here. You really ought to read it. I will say, however, that things really get interesting when Carol Cleland, a philosopher at the University of Colorado–Boulder, suggests that the effort to define life may be the very thing keeping the scientific community from understanding it. She expands on the idea as follows:  


    Definitions serve to organize our concepts. The definition of, say, a bachelor is straightforward: an unmarried man. If you’re a man and you’re unmarried, you are — by definition — a bachelor. Being a man is not enough to make you a bachelor, nor is being unmarried. As for what it means to be a man, well, that can get complicated. And marriage has its own complexity. But we can define “bachelor” without getting bogged down in those messy matters. The word simply links these concepts in a precise way. And because definitions have such a narrow job to do, we can’t revise them through scientific investigation. There is simply no way that we could ever discover that we were wrong about the definition of a bachelor as being an unmarried man.  

     Life is different. It is not the sort of thing that can be defined simply by linking together concepts. As a result, it’s futile to search for a laundry list of features that will turn out to be the real definition of life. We don’t want
to know what the word
life means to us. We want to know what life is. [So,] if we want to satisfy our desires, we need to give up our search for a

Is she right?

“What Is Life? Its Vast Diversity Defies Easy Definition”

March 9, 2021

The Coronavirus Pandemic  Sent People to the Doctor—and the Dictionary?

If you’re on Twitter and you follow Merriam-Webster’s account, then you know how the account managers periodically post updates on the words people search in the wake of major news stories or events. This is understandable. Merriam-Webster is a name synonymous with dictionaries, so it stands to reason that people would turn to the Merriam-Webster dictionary website to learn about the words and phrases appearing in news headlines and that get tossed back and forth by the talking heads on television.

And so it was with the pandemic, only to a much larger degree. According to an article appearing on the WGBH.org website, Peter Sokolowski, an editor at Merriam-Webster whose job includes monitoring the traffic to their online dictionary, saw something on March 13, 2020, that he had never seen before: a single story dominating the collective consciousness. That story was the burgeoning COVID-19 crisis, and it was driving unprecedented traffic to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. The top 30 to 40 words looked up that day were all related to the pandemic.

“We have never seen a news event that was [the source of] every single look up like this,” Sokolowski said.

Among the words and terms that saw outsized interest were medical ones — pandemic, coronavirus, and corona. There were terms related to the response by public officials, including quarantine, draconian, lockdown, and martial law. And there were words of a more personal nature, suggesting that people were grappling with an unprecedented situation, including apoplectic, calamity, and Kafkaesque.

But of all the words looked up that day, Sokolowski finds particular poignancy in a familiar one that, at first blush, seems like a bit of a head scratcher: cancel.

"The dictionary serves this higher plane of intellectual curiosity, but it also sometimes serves the very basic spelling function that we all use day in and day out,” Sokolowski said.

The word canceled has one "l" in American English but two in British English, and that quirk that is a not infrequent source of confusion, explains the article. This spelling causes confusion, and the fact that "cancel" saw such a surge of interest that day is a reminder of just how much of everyday life came to a halt at that early point in the pandemic.

It’s also a reminder of the pragmatic service dictionaries provide, even in a time of crisis.

You're making a sign for your window, you're making an announcement and you say, ‘Oh, is that one 'l' or two? You look it up in the dictionary, and that causes the word to spike, Sokolowski said. That is a remarkable thing. And, I think, a very poignant thing.

I think so too.

“The Pandemic Has Transformed the English Language”
March 9, 2021


Are Bad Words Ever Good? (And How Will Artificial
Intelligence Know?)

Did you know that there’s a List of Dirty, Naughty, Obscene, and Otherwise Bad Words that Internet companies use to “groom” search suggestions, restrict suggested edits on open source applications, and keep away from artificial intelligence to ensure that, presumably, it remains more intelligent than the rest of us?

Ah, but therein lies the rub. If artificial intelligence is being trained to interact with us and we’re prone to using words on the list, shouldn’t the AI know these words? This, in turn, prompts the asking of two larger questions: What makes an objectional word objectional and, if a word is objectionable, is it without educational value?

This isn’t just an intellectual exercise. According to “AI and the List of Dirty, Naughty, Obscene, and Otherwise Bad Words,” an article that appeared on Wired.com on February 4, 2021,

The initial List of Dirty, Naughty, Obscene, and Otherwise Bad Words was drawn up in 2012, by employees of stock photo site Shutterstock. Dan McCormick, who led the company’s engineering team, wanted a roll of the obscene or objectionable as a safety feature for the autocomplete feature of the site’s search box. He was happy for users to type whatever they wanted but didn’t want the site to actively suggest terms people might be surprised to see pop up in an open office. “If someone types in B, you don’t want the first word that comes up to be boobs,” says McCormick, who left Shutterstock in 2015.

Almost nine years later, LDNOOBW, as aficionados know it, is longer and more influential than ever. There are versions of the list in more than two dozen other languages, including three entries for Klingon—QI’yaH!—and 37 for Esperanto.

However, some AI researchers have questioned Google’s use of LDNOOBW to filter its AI input. As they see it, 

 … striking web pages featuring obscenities, racial slurs, anatomical terms, or the word sex regardless of context would remove large amounts of material from which the AI could gather important information, such as educational and medical material, news coverage about sexual politics, and the like.

For example, the article points to William Agnew, a machine learning researcher at the University of Washington and the cofounder of the community group Queer in AI, whose web pages encourage diversity in the field.

Words on the list are many times used in very offensive ways, but they can also be appropriate depending on context and your identity,” says Agnew. [Nevertheless, they] would likely be excluded from Google’s AI primer for using the word sex on pages about improving diversity in the AI workforce.

Agnew’s criticisms of Google’s use of LDNOOBW resulted in Google getting called out in a recent research paper that warned of the ethical downsides to such AI research. “If we filter out the discourse of marginalized populations, we fail to provide training data that reclaims slurs and otherwise describes marginalized identities in a positive light,” write the paper’s authors.


“AI and the List of Dirty, Naughty, Obscene, and Otherwise Bad Words,” February 4, 2021; www.wired.com


When Dictionaries Go Bad


Hussy, mistress, whore, evil woman - these are just some of the nine example compound words that Indonesian artist Ika Vantianti was shocked to find listed under the entry for ‘woman’ or ‘perempuan’ in Indonesia’s official dictionary.  


All nine were sexualised or derogatory terms. In contrast, in the entry for ‘laki-laki’, one of the words for man, there is just one example, ‘laki-laki jemputan’, which means a ‘man chosen as a son-in-law’. Another word for man, ‘pria’ also lists one term: ‘pria idaman’ meaning ‘heartthrob’.


Since making this discovery in 2016, Vantianti has used her art to campaign for change in the definition of woman and, as part of her efforts, she has collected editions of the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia — the standard dictionary used in schools and by teachers — which is compiled by a government agency.

The campaign has drawn attention to what critics deem a patriarchal culture in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.

Recently, Vantianti’s work provoked a response from the agency that compiles the dictionary. It said, via a statement on its website, that the use of these terms was “based on data showing they were among the most frequently used in tandem with ‘perempuan’ (or woman).”

The agency went on to say that the social ramification of such terms being in the dictionary “is another discussion.”

Vantianti is ready for that discussion—and hopeful about the country’s ability to change.

“I am not saying I want it all to be changed into positive words,” she said, “But I want objectivity and real conversations.”

I hope she gets them. 


“Artist on mission to change Indonesia's misogynistic dictionary entry for 'woman'”
March 10, 2021



Are You Cheugy? Am I? Does It Matter?

I don’t think I am, but I have to confess I’m really not sure. I mean, this very newsletter could make me cheugy AF because it might make me look like I’m “trying too hard,” but it’s also pretty nerdy, so … maybe not?

Confused? Let me back up.

I first came across this word, cheugy (pronounced chew-gee) in a headline from an April 29, 2021, New York Times article (“What Is Cheugy? You Know It When You See It”), but since I can’t access that right now (it seems I’ve reached my limit of free articles), I’m going to have to settle for one about the word from People magazine.

According to that article, cheugy “can be used to broadly describe "someone who is out of date or trying too hard." One person quotes in the article describes it like this, “’the type of people who get married at 20 years old’ or give off millennial ‘#GirlBoss’ energy. Think: the polar opposite of trendy.”

Holy shit, that is not helpful. What the fuck is millennial girlboss energy?

Apparently, I should have ponied up and paid for the New York Times article, and not just because this journalistic gem from People quotes from it heavily.

According to the New York Times, "cheugy" was first coined in 2013 by then-high school student Gabby Rasson, and the definition evolves based on what's fallen out of style. So right now, cheugy is essentially anything that was popular in 2016, which includes (yes, you guessed it!) skinny jeans and side parts.

I’m still lost, but one thing I did learn from this People article is that men can be cheugy too.

Chicago-based influencer @rod, whose viral videos help keep millennials in the know, also clarified that cheugy is gender neutral. "Men, suck it up. We are basic too," he said in a TikTok video, which declared that energy drinks, Axe body spray, cargo shorts, Buffalo Wild Wings and more all constitute as the "male version" of cheugy.

I don’t rock any of that stuff, so, while I might be basic, I’m not cheugy. Then again, it seems what is and isn’t cheugy is constantly changing, so things that are cheugy now may not be at some time in the future and things that are not cheugy may become so at any time, including the word cheugy itself.

Still confused? Me too. It sounds like it might be easier to just ignore the existence of the word and the idiots who use it.


Chuffed, But Not Exhalative

I came across the word chuffed in an article in the New Yorker. I’d pull the excerpt, but I can’t find it. The New Yorker comes out weekly and the damn things pile up like snow. (I’m 4 or 5 issues behind!) so who knows how much time has elapsed since I read it. It could have been a few weeks or a few months ago!

Anyway, I took the time to look chuffed up in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and here’s what it had to say:

Chuffed, adjective [English dial. chuff, pleased, puffed with fat] (1957) Brit : quite pleased : Delighted

Okay, so that’s what it means. However, MW also told me that there’s another word, chuff, which can be a noun or a verb that traces back to 1914. As a verb, it means “to produce noisy exhaust or exhalations,” and as a noun it refers to “the sound of noisy exhaust or exhalations.”

 Now you know.

Pflug Is Hard to Find

This was a tough one. I came across the word pflug in an essay in Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies. Here’s the context:

The smell on the beach grew stronger and stronger until I finally figured out what it reminded me of: the inside of belly buttons. It was the smell of a tiny bit of pflug that has snuggled way down deep inside a person, gotten a little wet, a little dirty….

Okay, based on the context, she’s clearly using pflug to mean belly button lint that’s been hanging around too long. However, I could not find this word anywhere. I scoured my dictionaries and even tried looking it up online (my last resort). The only thing I found either in print or online was that, in German, the word pflug means plow (or plough).

Did Lamott invent this word? I wonder if she’d feel chuffed that I am discussing it now?


Are You a Phubber?

Earlier, I asked if you’re cheugy. Now the question is, do you phub? I’m guessing you do, or have done it, even if it was unintentional. I know I have.

Phubbing, according to an August 13, 2021, article in New Scientist, is “a combination of phone and snubbing. Phubbing describes the act of ignoring a companion in favor of engaging with a phone.”

I’d like to tell you more about what the article in New Scientist says, but I can only read a few paragraphs because I’m not a subscriber and there’s a paywall. (I wonder what the term is for trying to read an article that rudely cuts out mid-sentence because you’re not an online subscriber?)

So, searching for something else to read about the act of phubbing, I typed “phub” into Google and my search results were filled all sorts of pornography related websites. Apparently, phubbing involves something of a sexual nature in addition to ignoring people with your phone.

Eventually, I did come across an article on the Healthline website that provided some more detail. The term phub was coined by an Australian advertising agency that used it to describe “the growing phenomenon of people ignoring their friends and family who were right in front of them and instead scrolling through their phones.”

Since then, there have been studies to find out just how prevalent the practice is. “One found that more than 17 percent of people phub others at least four times a day. Almost 32 percent of people report being phubbed two to three times a day.”

In addition, researchers contend that, although phubbing may not seem like a big deal (unless you’re the one being phubbed), it may damage your “personal relationships and mental health.” I won’t bore you with how it does these things, I’ll just ask you not to do it, okay? It’s rude.

The Smize Have It

Ok, this is embarrassing. I saw an article on Pocket about the supposedly “sexy” green M&M (see screen capture) and it used the word smize. What the heck is that? I wondered. I could tell it was a “new” word born of the Internet and/or Digital Age, so I didn’t bother looking in any of the paper dictionaries at my disposal. Instead, I went straight to the web, where I found out that the word was coined by model Tyra Banks and that it means “to smile with your eyes.”

I suppose I could have guessed that. After all, the word is a combination of “smile” and “eyes,” or at least a combination of the sounds of these words. However, the way it’s used by Pocket in reference to the green M&M kind of suggests otherwise.

What a waste of time.  

Zaftig (Use with Caution)

This was another word I encountered in Ann Lamott’s book. It appears in the chapter that details her lecture tour with a feminist writer (I don’t remember the woman’s name and I can’t look it up because I gave the book to my wife, and I don’t know what she did with it). Anyway, Lamott describes this woman as zaftig, and it stopped me in my tracks. Like most folks, I can often divine the meaning of a word from the context in which it’s used, but not this one.

As it turns out, zaftig (also zoftig) comes from a Yiddish word, zaftik, meaning “juicy” or “succulent.” According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) er, zaftig is commonly applied to women (so Lamott’s context is appropriate) who “have a full or rounded figure” or means “pleasantly plump.”

There you have it. Use it at your own risk. 




The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily

By Eugene Ehrlich


In case you haven’t heard (or didn’t read this issue’s Front Matter), there’s something of a Cold War taking place in the lexicography world. On one side are the descriptivists, lexicographers who contend that the role of a dictionary is to record the language as it is spoken, warts and all. These are the people who believe irregardless belongs on dictionary pages (be they in print or online) even though it’s not really a word, but a mangled usage and the most informal of informal expressions. On the other side are the prescriptivists. These folks believe dictionaries ought to set the standard for a language and advise speakers on the proper meanings and use of words and, generally, what is or isn’t acceptable.     

For years, the two sides have taken some very public shots at one another. More recently, these punches have been thrown over social media, where the parties hit and run via tweet and post. Traditionally, however,  these jabs were buried in the forwards of their respective dictionaries. As a case in point, consider the opening sentence to the preface of The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich. It reads:

The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate can be thought of as an antidote to the ongoing poisonous effects wrought by the forces of linguistic darkness—aided by permissive lexicographers who blithely acquiesce to the depredations of unrestrained language butchers.

Whoo-doggies! I think the Cold War just got colder! (Then again, maybe not … The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate was published in 1997.) So, how does The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate fight back against these rogue and sinister lexicographers? By providing:

… spellings, pronunciations, and definitions for interesting words that make life rewarding for readers, writers, and public speakers. It enables users to learn the correct meanings of words they may not already know. It wastes no space on useless entries, offers a single pronunciation for most entries, and bites the bullet in pointing out confusions in the use of words.

If this excerpt, along with the book’s title, leads you to believe the book is filled with uncommon 5- and 10-cent words you’re not likely to hear in everyday discourse, you’d be right. Here are a few samples: Absquatulate (meaning flee or abscond), Contumelious (meaning insolent or reproachful), Diadem (meaning a crown or headband worn as a sign of sovereignty), and Encomiast (another name for a eulogist).

Get this book and you can be extraordinarily literate too.


A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, Third Ed.
David Crystal

Why on Earth would someone want to crack the cover on A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics? I mean, borrrrrrrrring, right?

Well, if it helps …

The present dictionary is, in the first instance, an attempt to meet the popular demand for information about linguistic terms, pending the fuller, academic evaluation of the subject’s terminology which one day may come.

Define “popular,” amIright? All jokes aside, I can tell you that I picked it up for two reasons. First, I didn’t have one. I’d say I was filling a gap in my collection, but I didn’t know such a dictionary existed, so when I saw it I grabbed it without thinking. (What self-respecting dictionary collector wouldn’t?) Second, the magical thing about gathering these subject-specific dictionaries is that, when read in concert with other subject-specific dictionaries, they can expand one’s understanding of what a word means in different contexts.  

For example, consider the word discourse, which is generally defined, according to dictionary.com, as “communication of thought by words, talk, or conversation,” or “a formal discussion of a subject in speech or writing (such as a dissertation, treatise, sermon).” Contrast this with the entry for discourse that appears in the Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory, which runs a page and notes how the term, “which had its earliest uses in linguistics and literary study” has come to “have a wide application in the Humanities and Cultural Studies” thanks to “the influence of developments in semiotics and post-structuralism and the work of Michel Foucault.” It goes on to say that discourse, “is now generally used to designate the forms of representation, conventions, and habits of language use producing specific fields of culturally and historically located meanings.”

Okay, sure (lol), but in this dictionary, discourse is defined as:

 A term used in linguistics to refer to a continuous stretch of (especially spoken) language larger than a sentence, but within this broad notion, several different applications may be found. At its most general, a discourse is a behavioral unit which has a pre-theoretical status in linguistics: it is a set of utterances, which constitute any recognizable speech event … (e.g., a conversation, a joke, a sermon, an interview).

As you can see, these definitions are adequate on their own, but when considered together, a reader will come away with a very thorough understanding of the term, the disciplines it pertains to (and I didn’t even mention how it’s used in philosophy), and how it’s meaning can change depending on context.

That’s why.

The F Word

Jesse Sheidlower (ed.)

I don’t see much point in reinventing the wheel so, fuck it, I’m just going to reprint the blurb about this book that appear in the inside cover flap:

Here, in one convenient, comprehensive volume is the complete story of the word still considered the most vulgar utterance in the English language …. Rather than tired clich├ęs or graceless jokes, The F-Word contains page after page of actual, uncensored examples of the word in all its varied and robust use, from its first appearance in English in the 15th century.

As this excerpt explains, this book offers a complete presentation of the F-Word in all its variations, including those intended to help people disguise the word so they could sneak it in to “respectable” literature and those meant to serve as a replacement for the F-word in moments when uttering the real thing just won’t fly. If that wasn’t enough, this text also includes a number of acronyms for phrases that feature the F-word (e.g., GFO for “get the fuck out”).

As fun and entertaining a read as this is, one has to wonder about it’s completeness. I mean, can one book really encapsulate all the uses of the F-Word and its offshoots? There must be 10 new ones ever day! To investigate it’s completeness, I compared the entries in this book to the entries for the F-word in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, a huge book with an impressive list of entries for this most-censored term. The F-Word passed with flying colors.

Color me fucking impressed.


The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths
Gerald Benedict

From the Introduction:

It is important to clarify that when something is described as a secular alternative to religion, it in no way implies that the alternative is “religious.” If that were true, then anything which passionately centered and nourished individual and community life would be a “religion.” To call Communism or consumerism a religion is to entirely misuse the word or to use it metaphorically. A religion, in whatever form it takes, will connect the individual with something essentially beyond himself; it will have a metaphysical agenda. But even this assertion needs qualification since the hard edges between religion and secularism begin to dissolve when seemingly secular ideas and movements become the means by which individuals pursue the spiritual quest to find the ground of their being.

I chose to begin my mention of The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths with this excerpt because it provides a good indication of the careful thinking that Gerald Benedict used when writing the entries for this dictionary, which I have to say, looks like a formidable piece of scholarship. It’s not a large book – it’s the size of your typical paperback – but’s thick (nearly three inches, 658 pages). Therefore, had I started with the last paragraph in the book’s introduction …

The Dictionary offers an exploration of religious and secular traditions and their philosophies. All the major belief systems are described, as are many of the denominations, cults, and sects that have stemmed from them. Cross-references lead to the words most frequently found in the vocabularies of these systems, indicating how the word is used and understood. In addition, there are many dozens of “stand-alone” words and phrases that contribute to the mosaic of the whole picture.

… you wouldn’t know that Benedict was, at best, being modest or, at worst, selling himself short. This book offers thorough definitions, is well cross-referenced, and, despite what’s mentioned in the above excerpts, goes beyond what you might think of as religion and dips into folklore and philosophy. I’ve had this book for only a week or so, but something tells me I’m going to be reaching for it a lot.

Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations

Oxford University Press

If you own the Oxford English Dictionary, then you don’t need this book. Like any “Oxford Dictionary of …,” its contents are compiled from those of the OED. However, if you don’t own the OED in all its multivolume glory (or if, like me, you own the compact version of the OED which is very hard to read thanks to its microscopic type), and you’re always wondering what this or that acronym refers to, then this book might be right up your alley. It delivers what it promises—it’s almost 400 pages of abbreviations—and it offers some other information too, including an array of symbols ranging from the alphabets of foreign languages and proof-reader marks to monetary symbols and musical notations. But hey, don’t take my word for it. According to text on the book’s back cover:

The dictionary has over 19,000 entries, and includes acronyms, initialisms, shortenings, symbols and signs, and hybrid forms. Coverage is also international in scope, and graphic symbols, such as proofreading marks, hallmarks, music, science, and weather symbols, are all given in a series of appendices.

Encyclopedia of the Book, Second Ed.
Geoffrey Ashall Glaister

From the Introduction:

This classic work comprises more than three thousand alphabetically arranged definitions of the terms used in bookmaking, printing, papermaking, and the book trade, and provides biographical details of printers, authors, bookbinders, bibliophiles, and precise notes on machinery and equipment, famous books, printing societies, book-related organizations, customs of the trade, and other book lore.

Wow. I don’t know if this work is a classic, but I can understand why someone would say it was. It’s massive—550 7 x 10-inch pages—and jam-packed with information pertaining to the aforementioned disciplines and trades. It’s also got color and black-and-white plates, reprints of woodcuts, examples of fonts, black and white photos, drawings, and more. If you love everything about books (as I do), you need to get your hands on this. Again, at the time of this writing, I’ve had this in my possession for only about a week, so I haven’t really had a chance to dig into it. Yet, as I make my way through it now, I can tell you I am looking forward to spending some quality time with and learning from this beautiful and impressive book.

Freud Dictionary of Psychoanalysis
Nandor Fodor and Frank Gaynor (eds.)

Are you a devotee of Sigmund Freud? Are you a student pf psychology or psychoanalysis? If so, then you might what to get your hands on this slim volume comprised from Freud’s own writings. The editors put it this way:

Freud’s writings comprise a small library. To know how the founder of psychoanalysis defined his original terms, how he changed or amplified them in his later writings; to have his exact statements at hand on all possible psychoanalytic questions will be of considerable assistants to students and practitioners alike. 
Whatever your take on Freud, all the classics are here: castration anxiety, hysteria, (the) Oedipal complex, penis-envy … why not learn what Freud actually meant by these terms rather than getting them second or thirdhand from your cousin who took one semester of psychology in college and thinks he knows everything.

A Dictionary of Political Thought

Roger Scruton

I know Roger Scruton’s name, but I was under the impression that he was a philosopher. Well, I suppose he still is, but this dictionary seems a departure from his other work—and a good departure it is. For the last time in this issue of Verbosity, I’ll say again that I have only had this book in my possession for about a week, so I’m not too familiar with its contents. However, based on the blurb that appears on the back of the book, I’m convinced that purchasing a copy of this (admittedly on something of a whim) was a good move.

What is meant by “revisionism,” “monetarism,” “irredentism,” or “minimax”? What is justice, property, or freedom? What were Machiavelli, Trotsky, and Adam Smith so influential? When Marxists criticize the idea of a free market as bourgeois ideology, what do they mean? This 1,500-entry dictionary of terms, concepts, and influential thinkers offers some measure of clarity and precision to the language of political debate. It provides a precision to the language of political debate. It provides a readable and impartial survey of political thought, of immense value to students of political science, government, and philosophy, as well as to the general reader with an interest in the ideas and the arguments that have shaped contemporary politics.

In these days, where-in government seems to be going to pieces and would-be authoritarians are scheming to grab power and subvert the democratic process, having a book like this on hand seems like a good idea. It might not prevent our republic from going south, but at least you’ll know what people are talking about when it does. 





 Many dictionaries … were compiled by people with strong personalities, who
produced highly idiosyncratic dictionaries … The idealists, the missionaries, those who used their dictionaries to scold, to preach, to mock, to fight not only ignorance but fatuity, with little respect for the idea of objectivity as we understand it.  The paradox is their dictionaries are those that are best remembered.


- Jonathan Greene
Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers
and the Dictionaries They Made