The Butter Lamb News - Issue #3

Greetings Friends,

Below you will find (most of) the contents of issue #3 of The Butter Lamb News, the official publication of the Butter Lamb Reference Library. Why haven't I given you all the contents of issue 3? You should see it in its natural newsletter/zine format, that's why. How do you do that? You request a copy from me. Thanks for reading!



(Most of) Issue #3's CONTENTS:

I. Front Matter

II. Say What? (New Words and Phrases

III. Dictionaries and other References in the News

IV. New Additions to the Butter Lamb Reference Library

V. The Last Word


I. Front Matter: Let References Help

Most people are apt to reach for a dictionary (or use an online dictionary) when they want to learn the meaning of an unfamiliar word that came up in conversation or appeared in something they read. I do this too, and in case I don’t have the time to look up a word when I encounter it, I add it to a list of words on my phone. (Note: the words on this list often end up in the “Say What?” section of this newsletter.)

As I get older, though, I find myself reaching for a dictionary for another reason: to make sure I’m using a word correctly. That is, I’ve begun to use dictionaries to make sure the word I’m using means what I think it does. No, I’m not losing my marbles. On the contrary, I’d like to think I’m exercising them. I can recall a few times wherein I’ve been too lazy to look up a word whose meaning I thought I knew and it blew up in my face. For example, the other day, I wanted to say something pertaining to the spread of human settlements on Earth’s surface, but instead of using the word anthropic, which means “of or relating to human beings or their span of existence on Earth,” I used anthropocentric, which means something akin to, “regarding the human being as the central fact of the universe.” For the record, I had a feeling anthropocentric wasn’t right, but because I didn’t take the time to look it up, I paid for my indolence with an injury to my pride. D’oh!

Usually, I avoid using a word if I’m not sure of its meaning. For instance, a few nights ago I was writing about a moment of turning something over in my mind again and again. I thought I could use the word perseverate to describe the experience, but I had a nagging feeling I shouldn’t. As it turned out, that nagging feeling was right. I looked perseverate up and found that it means “to repeat something again and again,” such as in the case of telling a toddler to eat his or her peas. Thus, I used the word ruminate, as in “to brood over,” instead. Whew.

Anyway, this is all just a long-winded way of saying that dictionaries, in addition to helping us learn the meanings of words we don’t know, can help us be more precise in our use of the words we do know—or think we know. This is important, as skillful word choice (aka: diction) is a hallmark of good writing and effective communication.

But wait, there’s more! Along with telling us what exactly a word means, and thereby helping us communicate with greater effectiveness and precision, the best dictionaries can sharpen our prose by making us aware of the subtle yet important differences between synonyms, or words that have the same of similar meanings.

As explained by

English, with its long history of absorbing terminology from a wealth of other tongues, is a language particularly rich in synonyms—words so close in meaning that in many contexts they are interchangeable, like the nouns tongue and language in the first part of this sentence. Just about every popular dictionary defines synonym as one term having “the same or nearly the same” meaning as another, but there is an important difference between “the same” and “nearly the same.”

Although some folks might be tempted to reach for a thesaurus to help them sort through a bunch of synonyms, it might be better to go to a dictionary. But not just any dictionary. As writer John McPhee explains in, “Draft #4: Searching for the Right Words
1,” not all dictionaries are created equal.

In the search for words, thesauruses are useful things, but they don't talk about the words they list. They are also dangerous. They can lead you to choose a polysyllabic and fuzzy word when a simple and clear one is better. The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill. Writing teachers and journalism courses have been known to compare them to crutches and to imply that no writer of any character or competence would use them. At best, thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste (i.e., the exact, appropriate word). Your destination is the dictionary. Suppose you sense an opportunity beyond the word "intention." You read the dictionary's thesaurian list of synonyms: "intention, intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, goal." But the dictionary doesn't let it go at that. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line how each listed word differs from all the others. Some dictionaries keep themselves trim by just listing synonyms and not going on to make distinctions. You want the first kind, in which you are not just getting a list of words; you are being told the differences in their hues, as if you were looking at the stripes in an awning, each of a subtly different green2.

I agree with Mr. McPhee: you want that first kind of dictionary. It’s just one more way that well-crafted references can help us live richer lives. We just have to care enough to let them do it.



1. I can’t take all the credit for presenting this awesome dictionary-forward essay to you here. I found out about it when I stumbled across a blog post titled “You’re Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary,” by the writer James Somers (see while looking to see what the collective wisdom of the Internet had to say about looking up words you already know. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t much. Mr. Somers’s blog post doesn’t really address the topic either, but I thought I’d give him a shout out for his own stellar blog post (that you can read at and for connecting me with the McPhee article, which appeared in the April 29, 2013, issue of The New Yorker.

2. If for some reason you don’t want to look the McPhee article up on your own, I have a PDF of it will be happy to send you a copy on request.



II. Say What? New Words and Phrases (Or Words and Phrases New to Me)


Everything Old Is New Again: The Workplace Edition

If you’re alive and your eyes are working even a little bit, you've probably encountered the term quiet quitting. And if you believe all the reports about it in the media, quiet quitting is the biggest thing since the pumpkin spice craze or possibly twerking.

However, if by some miracle of nature you don't know what it is, let Neil Hare of explain it to you.

Quiet quitting [is the practice in which] burned-out or unsatisfied employees put forth the least amount of effort possible to keep their paychecks. The rationale for this [behavior] is that work is not the most important thing in people’s lives, they shouldn’t put in any extra time without compensation, and they should have freedom to pursue other endeavors outside of their employment.

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that quiet quitting doesn’t really involve quitting, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a snappy euphemism, shall we? Like Mr. Hare, what strikes me about quiet quitting is that the idea isn't new
at all. As Hare rightfully mentions, George Constanza did it in that episode of Seinfeld where he begins taking naps under his desk and, if I may be so forthcoming, I've been doing this on and off as the opportunity has presented itself since at least 2002, Back then, of course, quiet quitting was known as slacking, and we didn't make a big deal out of it.

So what, if anything, is different about quiet quitting now compared to then? Hare suggests it might be the cultures in which many people work. In our current always connected, always on working world, some of the bolder bosses out there believe they can contact their staffs at any time when something comes up—something those bosses believe requires immediate attention. It almost never does and rarely is the person contacted outside normal business hours paid enough to care. This wasn't the case back in the day. Ultimately, though I don't think there is much difference. Younger generations like to make up their own words for the events and trends affecting their lives, and while I often find it annoying, I get it.

It's a similar story with quiet firing, the management corollary to quiet quitting wherein the workplace powers that be "don’t give someone a raise in 5 years even though they keep doing everything they're asked," or when employers "quietly reduce the amount of work given to an employee or evade chats about his or her progress until the worker grows so frustrated he or she quits." I'm pretty sure this used to be called "using," "taking advantage," or "mistreating" someone, but hey, everything old is new again, right?

And hey, while we're talking about new words for workplace shenanigans, let's not forget about presenteeism. Depending on who you talk to, presenteeism is something of a response to quiet quitting or an offshoot of it. In general, presenteeism is the name for the workplace mindset that holds workers have to be seen in and around the office—even if it's not necessary for them to be there—to get ahead. This could include workers who show up when they're sick and should have stayed home, workers who stick around even though the thing they're doing can wait until tomorrow, or workers who go out of their way to show their colleagues they're on the clock well outside normal business hours. However, presenteeism also applies to those workers who are physically present, but not actively engaged in their work and thus not productive in the least.

Presenteeism has its roots in the idea that bosses reward the (purportedly) "reliable" and "hardworking" employees who were always at their desks, regardless of how much they actually accomplish. During the pandemic, when offices were closed and employees were told to work from home, the presenteeists suddenly had a problem. How could they show the boss they were "there" when they weren't? Enter the newest of these workplace neologisms, digital presenteeism.

As its name implies, digital presenteeism refers to workers who fear going unnoticed, so they working absurdly long hours and go to great lengths to ensure their status shows they're "available" on Slack, Teams, or whatever else tells the boss that they're on the clock.

That seems like a lot of work.

  • Quiet Quitting -
  • Quiet Firing -
  •  Digital Presenteeism


Other Words of Interest:

If there’s a list of disciplines with the best words, psychiatry has to be somewhere near the top. I don't spend my days reading psychiatry texts (or dictionaries) mind you—in fact, I'm not sure where I even found the following terms—but maybe I should because I find the variety of mental conditions and the words that refer to them endlessly fascinating. 

For example, I recently learned that the word anosognosia refers to a brain disorder resulting in insufficient self-awareness. This isn't the insufficient self-awareness of a Lindsey Graham or Ted Cruz mind you, it refers to the insufficient self-awareness wherein a person (who isn't grandstanding) has difficulty comprehending (and probably accepting) his or her own physical, cognitive, or emotional impairment, such as memory loss or other mental states associated with illnesses like dementia. The folks suffering from this condition are apt to spin their inability to remember or do things as someone playing a trick on them (e.g., believing someone hid their car keys rather than admitting they don't remember where they put them). This condition may also piggyback on other maladies, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as individuals with that condition may not be able to see that their quickness to anger is a problematic and “not normal.”

And speaking of mood swings, the word cyclothymia is defined as "a mild bipolar disorder characterized by instability of mood and a tendency to swing between euphoria and depression." Hmmm, some years ago, a psychiatrist diagnosed me with moderate depression and let me tell you, there were days where there wasn't anything "moderate" about it. I'm willing to bet the people dealing with "mild" bipolar disorder feel the same way. Then again, I guess one can only be so precise when distinguishing the severity of psychiatric disease. The lines between mild and moderate or moderate and severe might be blurry at best.

This brings me to my last psychiatric word, hypomania, which refers to “an abnormal condition of extreme excitement that is milder than mania, yet nonetheless characterized by great optimism and over-activity and often the reckless spending of money.”

There are a lot of psychiatric-specific terms out there, which means there are likely a lot of psychiatric reference books. The Butter Lamb Reference Library has just three, but I'm always on the lookout for more. In fact, one of these days, I expect to find a treasure trove of such books, and when I do, I may need a portmanteau to carry them, but maybe only if I'm in Britain. After all, portmanteau is a chiefly British word for "a case or bag to carry clothing in while traveling, especially a leather trunk or suitcase that opens into two halves." I know, books aren't clothing, but I suspect it doesn't matter what you put in your suitcase or leather trunk that opens in two halves when travelling. Besides, when I travel, I always make it a point to visit a few bookstores, so if you ever see me in Britain with this type of luggage, you better believe there's gonna be at least one book in it.

Do you know who probably doesn't travel with books? Donald Trump. How do I know? I don't really, but a recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian referred to the former president as "famously book shy," as in, averse to reading, and aside from that being about the best euphemism I've ever heard, it just kinda fits doesn't it? (I mean, does Trump seem like a reader to you?)

To be fair, I don’t know what the former guy thinks about reading as an activity or whether he values books at all, but given the general current of anti-intellectualism within the GOP (see its recent attacks on libraries as exhibit A), I doubt he'd admit it even if he did. Then again, that same Guardian article noted that his first wife (Ivana Trump), said the former president kept a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bed. Trump purportedly replied to this by saying, “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them.”

Perhaps keeping the former president away from books isn't such a bad idea after all.

In addition to the euphemism book shy, I also recently learned of the slang term splooting, which refers to an activity that mammals, but especially squirrels, seem to do when it's hot. Splooting, as I've been able to discern from the context clues, is the act of "stretching out spread-eagle" and remaining "motionless." According a recent article on the San Francisco-based, animals sploot "to get as much of their surface area in contact with the ground as possible. This helps to dump heat from their bodies into the environment, cooling them down." As it turns out, splooting is a normal, even natural, behavior practiced by bears and dogs as well as those gray furry beasts taking over our birdfeeders. The article goes on to say that splooting is also known as “heat dumping," so no wonder someone came up with a better word for it.

As a watcher of wildlife, I have seen squirrels sploot many times, but not once have I seen them do it on the ground. Typically, I see them sploot on the branch of a tree, which is noteworthy because, in addition to sploot, I also recently encountered the term sessile, which means "attached at the base or without any distinct projecting support." Who knew that the branches I see squirrels splooting on were sessile?

But hold on a minute: If squirrels and other mammals sploot when it's hot, why have I seen squirrels and my dogs splooting in cool weather too? Is there another reason they'd exhibit this behavior? Maybe they've got a bezoar inside them. What the fuck is a bezoar? According to the Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, a bezoar is "a hard mass deposited around a foreign substance found in the stomach or intestines of some animals." I know that would make me want to sploot. But wait, if you think that's gross. Consider that, according to Webster's once again, bezoars were once thought to be a remedy for poisoning, which means that people ingested these things (or part of them) to feel better.

Now, if you're surprised by the idea of people ingesting anything so foul as a bezoar, you might be prompted to exclaim, "Well, fuck my old boots!" which the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English tells me is phrase used to indicate surprise or astonishment. I believe that. I think I've ever heard people say it, or perhaps the closely related, "Well, fuck my boots!" But what if you're surprised and or astonished and you want to keep your expressions rated PG? Well, you could say something lame like, "Oh my goodness!" or "Holy Cow!" or you could kick it up a notch (and stick with the boot theme) by shouting, "Well, seduce my ancient boots!" And now that you've heard that, how could you not?

But wait, there's more! Try as I might, I just couldn't figure out a way to incorporate these additional new words, or words that are new to me, into the above paragraphs. So, if the above wasn't enough for you, here are two stragglers. The first is contrapuntal. I don't recall where I encountered this word, but I do remember wondering if it was some weird form of or a term related to counterpunch. It’s not. When I looked it up, I learned that it's a musical term relating to counterpoint, or music "composed of two or more relatively independent melodies played together."

The second is the word sfumato, which means "the subtle and minute gradation of tone and color used to blur or veil the contours of a form in painting." This word struck me as very odd, as you don't see English words that begin with the letters sf too often. Low and behold, the word is of Italian origin.

Well, seduce my ancient boots!




III. Dictionaries and References in the News

Past Lives of the Paragraph, July 14, 2022

 In this absurdly long, but oddly satisfying piece, the Hedgehog Review asks you to ponder a question:

What is a paragraph? Consult a writing guide, and you will receive an answer like this: “A paragraph is a group of sentences that develops one central idea.”

I haven’t pondered this question, but I can tell you this is precisely how I was taught to think about a paragraph in the third or fourth grade, and the lesson has stuck with me all these years. I've adhered to it like a commandment to the extent that I've occasionally fretted about whether a paragraph that was getting lengthy should be broken up because its ties to that central theme were growing thin.

Well, this treatise on the paragraph seems to suggest that, however solid the definition provided above may be, there seems to be plenty of room for interpretation.

... it quickly melts in the heat of live instruction, as any writing teacher will tell you. Faced with the task of assembling their own paragraphs, students find nearly every word in the formula problematic. How many sentences belong in the “group?” Somewhere along the way, many were taught that five or six will do. But then out there in the world, they have seen (or heard rumors of) bulkier and slimmer specimens, some spilling over pages, some consisting of a single sentence. And how does one go about “developing” a central idea? Is there a magic number of subpoints or citations? Most problematic of all is the notion of the main “idea” itself. What qualifies? Facts? Propositions? Your ideas? Someone else’s?

Before you weigh-in on that, let me tell you this deep dive into the paragraph begins by taking readers all the way back to the paragraph’s birth and then brings them all the way to the present, making frequent stops along the way. (I won't spoil it for you. You'll just have to experience this expedition for yourself.) Included among those stops is the way some of the earliest English dictionaries explained the concept, and as this article points out, the  concept was in flux even then.

Thomas Blount’s 1656 Glossographia, for example, defines “paragraph” as follows: “(paragraphus) a Pilcrow; whatever is comprehended in one sentence; where the line is broken off (which Printers call a break) there ends the paragraph. Books are most often commonly divided into Chapters, those into Sections, and Sections again in Paragraffs.” As Blount’s definition attests, early moderns thought of the paragraph as a punctuation mark (and in this regard was usually discussed in grammar books alongside periods, colons, and commas); a sentence, verse (of Scripture), or subsection of a document cordoned off by that mark; or, most strikingly for present purposes, a typographically defined quantity of text. The last possibility would come increasingly into focus over the ensuing decades, with the result that the 1706 new edition of The New World of English Words would define a paragraph as “a Portion of Matter in a Discourse or Treatise, contained between two Breaks, i.e. which begins with a new Line, and ends where the Line breaks off.” 

This got me wondering how some of the Butter Lamb Reference Library's references defined or spoke of the paragraph. I was especially interested to see what the usage guides had to say, as I confess I don't open these books too often.

Surprisingly, of the four usage guides I have in my possession, only one—the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar—had an entry for paragraph. It reads:

paragraph (n.) A distinct section of a piece of writing, beginning on a new, and often indented, line.

(v.) Arrange in such sections.

Although the ways text is set out on the page may be an important factor in its intelligibility, the paragraph as such has no grammatical status comparable to that of a phrase, clause, or sentence.

The only other source of information I found about the paragraph in the BLRL's collection was from the
American Dictionary of Printing and Bookbinding. It reads:

Paragraph. A verse; the matter contained between one break-line and the next. No exact rules exist to show when a new paragraph should be begun, The plan generally adopted is to begin one when the sense changes. This is, however, very much at the will of the A paragraph is usually indented an em quadrat. This is sufficient when the measure does not exceed twenty-five or thirty ems of the type used, but if the measure goes much beyond this it is better to employ two ems, and in very long ones three ems, In some good leaded work matter even narrower than thirty ems is indented an em and an en. Much must be left to authors in the making of paragraphs, Some desire a great number, and others prefer long ones. In conversation it is usual to break up the matter into paragraphs for each new speaker and for each interruption. Paragraphs should not end with two or three letters, even if a whole word, and in books designed for permanence at least an eighth of the blank-line should be filled up with the last words of the paragraph. The last line of a paragraph should not come at the end of a page. An even paragraph is where a bit of copy is given to a compositor and he is told to begin and end evenly. Thus he makes no indentation and spaces the first line so that the last word of his take completely fills it out. A hanging paragraph is where the first line begins flush and the second and succeeding lines are indented. A mark for authors or editors to indicate a paragraph is. and when it is desired that no paragraph shall be made a line runs from the end of one paragraph to the beginning of the next. It is also denoted by No " In some books and magazines the first word of a chapter or instalment is not indented, but runs out flush.



Florida School District Rejects Donated Dictionaries; August 20,2022

The world has officially gone insane. That's right: if you were waiting for a moment that signaled beyond any reasonable doubt that things were different, that the ground beneath your feet had changed and that nothing could ever be taken for granted again, you can stop. It has arrived—and dictionaries are at the center of it.

According to Business Insider, a school district in Florida has rejected a donation of 300 dictionaries from the Venice Suncoast Rotary Club because a new state law—HB 1467—that went into effect on July 1 mandates that all educational reading materials be approved by a certified education media specialist.

What's the problem with the dictionaries? Nothing. The books were rejected because the district is still trying to hire the three media specialists it needs.  

"I would suspect somebody, anyone, could approve a dictionary in less than one minute," said Gar Reese, a member of the rotary club. "Why are we going through all this trouble?"

It's a good question. Here's another one: Why is an educational institution preventing the distribution of educational materials to students when it accepted them fourteen times before?

That's right, this is the 15th year the rotary club has donated dictionaries to the school district.

Are things really so broken in America that we can't even do the things we did before simply because there might be something in a book that someone might not like or approve of? Then again, maybe the conservatives behind this new law want to keep students from looking up words like fearmongering, fragility, censorship, imbecile, ideologue, moron, and stupidity.



Michigan Prisons Ban Spanish and Swahili Dictionaries to Prevent Inmate Disruptions; June 2, 2022

According to National Public Radio, "Officials in prison systems across the United States have banned certain books as a way to prevent the flow of material that might incite violence. In Michigan, that ban has extended to Spanish and Swahili dictionaries because the books’ contents are a threat to the state's penitentiaries."

And how exactly are these books a threat? Chris Gautz, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, puts it this way.

"If certain prisoners all decided to learn a very obscure language, they would be able to then speak freely in front of staff and others about introducing contraband or assaulting staff or assaulting another prisoner."

Therefore, as Gautz goes on to say, "allowing prisoners to gain access to language books other than English could encourage them to organize without the knowledge of staff."

This is certainly true and, at first glance, banning dictionaries would seem to make sense. However, when looked at a little deeper, it seems such bans are unlikely to provide a lasting solution to the prison's problems. Gautz's own logic shows us why.

First, when you learn a language you don't begin with the dictionary. Sure, you could use a dictionary devoted to a specific language to learn the meanings of new or unfamiliar words, but as any high school student trying to learn Spanish (or any non-native English speaker taking ESL classes) knows, languages are taught person-to-person, not person-to-dictionary. Thus, if the inmates are learning new languages, they're learning them from one another. Second, if every prison is the U.S. removed every dictionary in every prison library, it still wouldn't prevent prisoners from developing an obscure language of their own.

Does this sound too far-fetched? It's not. When I was a kid, some of my peers communicated in what they referred to as "Pig Latin," which was really just English with the extra-syllabic gibberish added to works to make them difficult for outsiders, the uninitiated, and authority figures to understand. I can't tell you I used it myself (I never quite got the hang of it), but I can tell you there were no Pig Latin dictionaries in circulation at the time.

So, it seems the Michigan Department of Corrections' problem is not that the inmates have access to dictionaries, it's that the inmates have a desire to communicate with one another and hide things from the guards. Perhaps the only way to stop that is to mandate that every prisoner take a vow of silence, and my guess is even that wouldn't do the trick. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcom, "Crime, uh, finds a way." 


California Man Angered by Gender Definitions Threatened to Bomb
Merriam-Webster's Offices, Federal Prosecutors Say

CBS; April 23, 2022

In issue #2 of this publication, I wrote about The Liar's Dictionary, which is a work of fiction that centers around a young woman named Malorie who works at the office of a fictitious dictionary. Her job is to go through the online version of the dictionary and remove any mountweasles—fake words  entered into the dictionary's paper version as a means of fending off and/or identifying instances of lexicographical plagiarism. Anyway, as Malorie performs the duties of her job, she is periodically interrupted by the threatening calls of a man upset with the dictionary for changing its definition of marriage.

Well, it would seem that, once again, life has imitated art. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to say that, first, art imitated life, for the people who worked at Merriam-Webster were subject to harassment when that (very real) dictionary altered its definition of marriage to encompass people of all genders and sexual orientations (i.e., it no longer defines marriage as an arrangement between a man and a woman). In fact, the brouhaha got so heated, that Merriam-Webster felt it necessary to include the following along with it's definition of marriage (at least on its website).

The definition of the word marriage—or, more accurately, the understanding of what the institution of marriage properly consists of—continues to be highly controversial. This is not an issue to be resolved by dictionaries. Ultimately, the controversy involves cultural traditions, religious beliefs, legal rulings, and ideas about fairness and basic human rights. The principal point of dispute has to do with marriage between two people of the same sex, often referred to as same-sex marriage or gay marriage. Same-sex marriages are now recognized by law in a growing number of countries and were legally validated throughout the U.S. by the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. In many other parts of the world, marriage continues to be allowed only between men and women. The definition of marriage shown here is intentionally broad enough to encompass the different types of marriage that are currently recognized in varying cultures, places, religions, and systems of law.

By now, this kerfuffle over marriage is old news. What's new is that, as reported by CBS News, "a California man was arrested for making violent threats against the Merriam-Webster over the dictionary company's definitions of “girl” and “woman.”

According to reports:

Between October 2 and October 8, 2021, Merriam-Webster received a series of "threatening messages and comments demonstrating bias against specific gender identities" on its website. After the threats, Merriam-Webster closed its offices in Springfield, Massachusetts and New York City, New York for five business days. Under the dictionary's website definition for the word "female," [the perpetrator] allegedly wrote: "There is no such thing as 'gender identity.' The imbecile who wrote this entry should be hunted down and shot."

The angry prescriptivist then went on to suggest the Merriam-Webster offices be "bombed" before reciting a bunch of right-wing talking points about "cultural Marxists," the "anti-science tranny agenda," and the Left's on-going plans "to corrupt and degrade the English language and deny reality."  For what it's worth, he also allegedly threatened other institutions and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Land O' Lakes, Hasbro, Inc., IGN Entertainment, the President of the University of North Texas, two professors at Loyola Marymount University, and a New York City rabbi. 

It's tempting to write off such vitriol as the ranting and raving of an ignorant and gullible idiot who doesn't get that dictionaries like Merriam-Webster's don't dictate the meaning of words, they just report how they’re used by large segments of the population, but you can't be too careful nowadays. Far too many people feel threated by the ideas they don't support or can't understand, but instead of thinking though their fear or unease, they lash out with threats and intimidation. Fortunately, it’s still not (totally) acceptable to behave like this, as the person who levied these threats against Merriam-Webster found out.

As Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the special agent handling the case said, the perpetrator's actions went too far. 

"Everyone has a right to express their opinion, but repeatedly threatening to kill people, as has been alleged, takes it to a new level. Threats to life are most certainly not protected speech and they cause real fear in victims."

In other words, to quote Merriam-Webster, “words matter.”


If Printed Dictionaries Are History, What Will Children Sit on to Reach
the Table?
Humanities, Fall 2018, Volume 39, Number 4

Don't let the title of this essay fool you, "If Printed Dictionaries Are History, What Will Children Sit on to Reach the Table?" is not some cutesy personal reflection about the way online dictionaries are somehow killing our family traditions and ruining life as we know it. Rather, it offers a somewhat cynical take on what dictionaries say about their owners.

… as anyone who grew up in twentieth-century America knows, many a dictionary stopped a door or flattened autumn leaves between waxed paper. Earlier in the year, flowers had dried within their pages. At Thanksgiving, children unable to reach their turkey sat atop the big Webster’s or Random House…. Dictionaries were useful objects, but when people weren’t sitting on them or looking things up in them, they were also household ornaments that signified eloquently the social status of their owners.

According to the essay's author, Michael Adams, back in the day, owning a dictionary implied an ambition to speak and write correctly and that the owner thought about language.

A big dictionary on the shelf implied that you read books with words so hard you might need to look them up; or that you were a reader in search of nuance that only a big dictionary could supply.

In other words, the bigger the dictionary, the more important it is to your identity, to your attempt to show the world how intelligent and sophisticated you are.

Yet, now that large, imposing, and cumbersome dictionaries are going the way of the dinosaurs, will online dictionaries that have been "reduced to their information" allow the bookish to broadcast their smarts and worldliness to the masses?

In the Information Age … you will find fewer big print dictionaries open on cherry book stands in American living rooms…. Will people of the word—people who love language, but nevertheless consult online dictionaries—figure out ways to display their wordiness in worldly ways, establishing public identities like those that dictionaries helped establish in the previous century?

Adams believes they will because, for better or for worse, people in a capitalist societies always find ways to use the goods and services they purchase to telegraph their social position. Thus, in the place of those large print dictionaries on wooden stands, Adams envisions sleek wall-mounted screens with icons for the dictionaries owned to impress.

Well-designed digital dictionaries can serve the same social purposes as their printed forebears—express one’s identity, one’s aspirations, one’s status as registered by various forms of consumption and various modes of utility and style. They can’t stop doors. They can’t substitute for booster seats. From a sleek screen on a stand, however, dictionaries can still furnish a room.

I have to say, this article rubs me the wrong way. I know what Adams is up to (I was an English major too), but I don't buy the premise that dictionaries are merely household ornaments and a way to signify one's social status or ambitions. I mean, sure, they can be. Anything can. (e.g., cars, cell phones, kitchen appliances, and so on.) But why single-out dictionaries? Yes, the medium can be message, sure, but I don't know anyone who has a dictionary alone on a pedestal away from their other books. Why divorce them from a more general belief in the value of education, which has always been seen as a way to climb the social ladder  or the American ideal of self-directed self improvement? (Note: The belief one
can climb the ladder is indicative of social position itself.)

As a case in point, my fascination with references undoubtedly goes back to the set of encyclopedias that stood silently on a small bookshelf in my childhood home. I loved those things, and while Adams would say my parents bought them to signify their social position, I would say, “Hmmm, maybe?”

If our World Book encyclopedias were meant to be ornaments, my folks would have put them someplace better than the little bookshelf in the corner of the living room, where my mom did the ironing. Further, judging by the stiffness of their bindings, I don’t think anyone actually looked in them but me. Usually the stuff you’re proud of gets used, but not once did I see my mom or dad crack the cover of a volume. Therefore, to suggest these books we're a source of pride for my parents or an indication that they’d somehow “made it” is absurd.

Of course, Adams would say none of this makes any difference, as my parents' impetus for buying the encyclopedias was ideological (i.e., based on the prevailing cultural attitudes and beliefs of their class) so not discussing them or even touching them is irrelevant. Again, I would disagree. Education was important to my parents, but books and reading were not. (Most assuredly, this has fueled my affinity for book as well). My father had little use for people who were "book smart," but didn't know how to hold a hammer. Does that sound like the thinking of a guy keen to show of his status by purchasing reference books?

If there's a saving grace here, it's that Adams doesn’t remove himself from this cynical take on owning a pricey dictionary. He's not pointing a finger at those he sees as misguided, or if he is, he's aware of the others pointing back at him. Nevertheless, I get the feeling Adams is reaching a bit. He's not wrong, per se—those large heavy dictionaries are aspirational (and I suppose you do need expendable income to purchase one)—but that’s not the whole story of how and why they end up in someone’s home.


How Many Words Did Shakespeare Invent?; July 14, 2022

Do you know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? The wise old owl said three, but the narrator in the famous commercial claims, "The world may never know." I suspect the same is true when it comes to identifying the number of words Shakespeare invented.

According to an article on the Bookriot website, "The Oxford English Dictionary has estimated that Shakespeare invented around 1,700 words." But is that number correct?

When we say that Shakespeare invented a word, it tends to mean that his work was the first written documentation of [that] word. The original volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) were published between 1884 and 1928, and they included tons of Shakespeare quotes. Since Shakespeare’s work was so dominant in the OED, over 1,700 words [in Shakespeare’s work] were believed to be the first time that the word was used in the English language. However, this is a disputed figure.

Here's the deal: Apparently, back in Shakey's time, only about 30% of men and 10% of women were thought to be able to read and write. So, the words commonly said in conversation weren't always written down. Therefore, when scholars say that Shakespeare "invented" a word, it isn't that he made it up. He was just the first to commit it to paper. For some scholars, giving Shakespeare credit for "inventing" these words amounts to "a kind of bias toward their preferred literary master.”

In response, the OED has said it is "committed to reviewing every Shakespeare-affiliated word and confirming the historical accuracy of its lineage" and that it is currently "in the process of updating entries for many words that were previously attributed as first used by Shakespeare." This entails finding texts that predate the publication of Shakespeare’s plays.

Nevertheless, the debate over which words can be unequivocally attributed to Shakespeare rages on. According to the article:

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a short list of words they believe to be definitively invented by The Bard. However, a recent count from LitCharts lists 420 words that we can be certain Shakespeare originated in written language.

Now you know.


You can see the Tootsie Pop commercial here:


IV. New Additions to the Butter Lamb Library

A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

Michael Ferber (1999)

Imagine you're a college professor who's spending the afternoon reading your student's essays on Lord Byron's poetry. You notice that your students are having a hard time with Byron's references to specific things (in this case, the plants myrtle and ivy), and you think to yourself, "There ought to be a book to which people can go to discover the symbolism of these things."

Such is the origin story of A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, a book that, according to the author's introduction:

… covers only traditional symbols, those that have been used over many years by many authors. Most entries begin with the Bible or the classics and trace examples through to fairly recent writers, with an emphasis on British literature, especially on Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantics; they also typically include a few examples from Italian, French, Spanish, German, or Russian literature (especially from Dante and Goethe). The tradition is more stable than I had first guessed, at least until the 20th century; nightingales and cypress carry with them their ancient associations, and even where they are invoked in new ways those connotations may still be in play….

     What readers need to know … are the traditional symbols, the routine furniture of literature over thousands of years, which often appear without explanation, and which gradually gain in connotation as the tradition lengthens and alludes to itself. Whether it informs the meaning of an individual work is often a subtle question—Does it matter that the bird that seeks "Your cradle narrow / Near my Bosom" in Blake's "The Blossom" is a sparrow with its associations of lust?

     The question cannot be entertained without a knowledge of the tradition. I do not know how many of these traditional symbols there are, but the number cannot be very large, and I am hoping that a book with 175 of the most important ones, along with cross references, will be complete enough to constitute a useful reference work.

Now, it's at this point that you may be thinking, a text devoted to literary symbols is great, Joe3, but isn't the world already rich in dictionaries of symbols like those from Cirlot, Biedermann, and others? Feber acknowledges these text in his introduction but finds they don't meet the needs of students (or anyone else) interested in how symbols function in a literary context. In fact, he singles out Cirlot's
A Dictionary of Symbols as "the last thing I would recommend to a student." (Oh, snap!) As for the others, including the weighty Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, he says that they, "range widely but unsystematically over the cultures of the world, packing Mayan and Chinese meanings next to those  from medieval alchemy" and that they don't "quote widely from poetry or prose fiction."

I'm no literary scholar, but I have taken my share of English courses on the Romantics, so I can say with some certainty that this book would have been useful to me in my studies. Mr. Ferber may worry that the 175 entries in his book are not enough, but what he doesn't tell you is that the vast majority of his entries are quite thorough and regularly go beyond a page in length. In fact, I could only find a handful in the 200 or so word range.

In brief, this book is a true work of scholarship and I can say with confidence that if you like to read or have an interest in classic literature, this text will surely take your understanding and appreciation of it to the next level.


Dictionary of Proverbs and their

Linda and Roger Flavell (1994) 
 proverb, says the
Oxford English Dictionary, is "a concise sentence, often metaphorical or alliterative in form, which is held to express some truth ascertained by experience or observation and familiar to all." That may indeed be the case, but a better explanation for what a proverb is and why people remember and recite them can be found in Flavell's and Flavell's Dictionary of Proverbs and their Origins.

Proverbs are guidelines for life, based on the collective folk wisdom of the people. Such riches are eagerly sought after and at any age in mankind's development. They are also pithily, even wittily, and always memorably phrased, as a result of a refining process that often takes them through various versions before they reach their polished final form. They are the wisdom of many and the wit of one.

Wit of one though they may be, the Flavells note that zeroing-in on the history of a proverb and tracing it all the way back to its origins can be a challenge.

The etymology (or etymologies, since there are sometimes alternative accounts) tries to go back to the earliest origins. We endeavor to give dates, although it is often impossible to do this with any confidence. As proverbs are folk wisdom, passed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation, the first written record … is likely to be a poor indication of the saying's actual origin.

Somewhat easier to ascertain is the context within which a proverb originated, even though they may "come from worlds far removed from our contemporary civilization." Obviously, context is important, as it provides clues to a proverb's intent, which isn't always clear from its words alone. A good example of this (that the authors cite in their introduction) is "pull devil, pull baker," which refers to being torn between divided allegiances. As the author's note, "The interesting thing about this proverb is that the humble baker's reputation is equated with that of the devil." Why might that be? Because "medieval bakers were unpopular figured accused of accumulating wealth at the expense of their customers to whom they sold underweight loaves
. The punishment for this was a spell in the pillory."

Examples like this one have me convinced that this book is a fine addition to any dictionary collection, even if it already contains other proverb references. As a case in point, The Butter Lamb Reference Library has two others—the Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs and the Random House Dictionary of America's Popular Proverbs and Sayings (not to mention other books devoted to the origins of popular sayings that aren't necessarily proverbs)—and neither contains "pull devil, pull baker."

Nice work Flavells.


Dictionary of Wars

George C. Kohn (1987)

It's been said (by Bart Simpson) that the only good wars were the Revolutionary War, World War II, and the original Star Wars trilogy. I don't know if that's true, but if I was keen to add some wars to that list, this book would be a good place to start. The book bills itself as "the complete one-volume reference guide to every global conflict, civil war, mutiny, punitive expedition, undeclared war, and revolution in human history." I have no way of verifying if that's true either, but the girth of this text suggests whoever wrote that sentence might be telling the truth. Then again, as noted somewhat contradictorily in the book's preface:

No one-volume reference work like this can possibly include every war. Space limitations preclude total comprehensiveness. Furthermore, dealing with a subject of so wide a range of time and territory—wars in all parts of the world from 2000 B.C. to the present—compels a certain subjectivity in choosing what to include and what to exclude. But I still have covered the entire sweep of the globe in selecting entries, and I feel that the presentation gives the reader a clear idea of the amazingly diverse conflicts which have plagued mankind.

I get that, and author George C. Kohn is right: No one book can provide total comprehensiveness. So why does the cover say the book is "the complete one-volume reference guide to every global conflict …." You'd think someone writing a dictionary would understand the significance of using the word
every. (Sigh.)

Still, there's no question that, while not including information about every conflict, the book is quite comprehensive. I mean, the War of Bavarian Succession? It's in here. Lubeck's War of 1531? Yep. The Russo-Finnish War of 1939? Yeah, it's in here too. Yet, beyond giving readers some insight into what caused each dust up, which side prevailed, and why, this book is something of a sad testament to humanity's inability to work out its problems without a bunch of people dying. Hopefully, someone out there has written a Dictionary of Averted Wars that'll make me feel better.

Dictionary of Word Origins
Linda and Roger Flavell (1996)

The Flavells did a fantastic job with their
Dictionary of Proverbs and their Origins, but I find their Dictionary of Word Origins less impressive. They say their book is meant to meet the needs of the casual browser on a quest for knowledge and the lover of words, but the words they've chosen to include in the book are those that they perceive as "hav[ing] a story to tell."

In selecting words for inclusion, we have chosen those which have a story to tell. While we have striven for scholarly accuracy (without, we hope, falling into academic pedantry), we have also aimed to show something of the richness and diversity of the English language, and to include sufficient that is plain curious to satisfy the browser motivated by nothing more than a quest for knowledge and a love of words.

Well, that's great and all, but what if the browser on that quest or the lover of words reaches for this book because he or she wants to know the origin of a particular word, regardless of its story? This isn't just a hypothetical. The other day, I went to look up the origin of the word feces. (It's gross, I know, but I was engaged in this lexicographic pursuit for a reason.) I didn't care of if the word had a "story," I just wanted to know the word’s age and where it came from.

To be fair, etymology is tough row to hoe. No one book can provide the history of every word in the English language, and even if an author was ambitious enough to try, he or she would have to take on (or at least keep up with) the etymologists at the Oxford English Dictionary, who have been there and done that, and other heavyweights in the field such as Eric Partridge, whose books are likely sources for the million other dictionaries of etymology out there. (There are 11 on the Butter Lamb Reference Library's shelves and I keep stumbling upon more in bookstores.) Therefore, narrowing the list of words to include makes sense both lexicographically and practically.

Still, to limit your scope to the words whose backstory you as an author find "interesting" is to voluntarily make your book more of a novelty than a useful reference, and I don't know why the author of any reference would want to do that. My feelings aside, though, this text from Flavell and Flavell makes for a nice supplemental source of etymological information, as it does provide detailed histories of those storied words, along with brief definitions and contextual examples of how the word has been used. After all, it's a good idea to consult more than one etymological dictionary when delving into a word's history and this one is likely to have a fact or two that others with more entries but shorter explanatory text might not.


Dr. Johnson's Reliquary of
Rediscovered Words

Dr. Neil Johnson (1998)

Johnny Rotten (aka: John Lydon), singer of the Sex Pistols famously asked, "Have you ever had the feeling you've been cheated?" Had he posed that question to me directly, I would have answered "yes" and I would have had this book in mind when I did. (Good thing I bought it used.)

First, there's the title. In lexicographic circles, to invoke the name of Dr. Johnson is to imply that one is speaking of Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary of 1755 is a milestone in lexicographic history. Although not the first English dictionary, his was among the most commonly used, it spawned a host of imitators, and it set the course for modern lexicography as we know it. Therefore, to call your book "Dr. Johnson's Reliquary of Rediscovered Words" implies that the book contains some lost or forgotten words by the master himself—and man who was known to invent a word here and there. Buyer beware, I guess (But c'mon, man.)  

Second, after spending some time with this book, it's clear the author “rediscovered” these archaic, obsolete, or unfashionable words on the pages of other, pre-existing references. And which references did this pseudo-Dr. Johnson consult? That’s a good question. His book lacks a bibliography and, save for a handful of instances, contains no citations revealing where the discovery of these lost words occurred. If I had to guess, I'd say Dr. N. Johnson spent some quality time with the complete Oxford English Dictionary, which labels words as archaic or rare, and consulted other texts like the Dictionary of Obsolete English, Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, and the Dictionary of Uncommon Words.

I happen to have these three books, so I did a little investigating to see if the words in Dr. N. Johnson's book appeared in them. Not surprisingly, they did. Since all of these books predate his (in some cases by decades), I believe Dr. N Johnson when he writes in the Reliquary's introduction that he "engaged in some pretty exhaustive research." However, I'm less inclined to believe his claims that he has "drawn on sources of information that you are unlikely to find referenced in other works of etymology." Yeah, you won't "find these sources of information referenced in other works of etymology," but why would you? The books I reference are not etymological dictionaries. Reader beware.

Nevertheless, hats off to Dr. N. Johnson on some clever marketing. The man can spin a yarn and he known how to present a book in such a way that it'll draw-in suckers like me. Further, there are some fun and useful words in his book. I'm just not sure Dr. N. Johnson can claim to have “rediscovered” them. From where I’m sitting, it looks like others rediscovered them first.

The Future Dictionary of America

Various authors/editors (2004)

This review appeared on this blog some time ago. You can read what I said about the book here


V.   The Last Word

Guy Verbose Episode 1: The Big Memory

Note: This also appeared on the Butter Lamb blog a little while ago. You can read it here.



"As the bearer of the linguistic law, the lexicographer is never more priestlike than when his dictionary is seen as the literally definitive statement of the moral and ideological values of the society in which it is used. As one can see in Johnson or Webster, whose definitions of such terms as ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are redolent of their own attitudes, the lexicographer is in a privileged position, able at will or whim to impose his beliefs on a world programmed to accept them."

— Jonathon Green, Chasing the Sun




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