Discordant Dictionaries

April 3, 2014 — 14 Comments

dictionary 1Most “word people” like dictionaries. Some writers go so far as to love dictionaries, but I don’t wish to quibble about where one rests on the affection spectrum in terms of these repositories of words.

This guy, though, has to be pegged on the extreme (idolatry) end of the meter. Ammon Shea wrote Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages after having done just that. The Oxford English Dictionary, you may know, comprises 25 volumes, and Shea warns that reading it at such a rapid pace took a toll on his eyesight. It’s not surprising, that he admits he is not your typical reader.

One could say that I collect word books, since by last count I have about a thousand volumes of dictionaries, thesauri, and assorted glossaries. . . . I do not collect these words because I want to impress friends and colleagues with my erudition. . . .

My friends know that I read dictionaries for fun, and have come to accept this proclivity with relative good grace, but they are not terribly interested in or impressed by my word collection.

Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier advised his fellow poets to read the dictionary. No better way to enrich one’s language, he claimed, although he also read cook books, almanacs and the like. In fact, his biographer offered this fascinating observation.

He found pleasure in the most indifferent novels, as he did in books of the highest philosophical conceptions, and in works of pure science. He was devoured with the desire to learn, and said: “No conception is so poor, no twaddle so detestable that it cannot teach us something by which we may profit.”

C.S. Lewis indicated that so-called “definitions” offered outside the ordinances of the dictionary must be approached warily. “When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust” (Studies in Words). He offers a very sensible reason for such precautions.

It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote. The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism.

Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so (Studies in Words).

Dictionaries are, of course, their own genre. Lectionaries, collections of words and meanings, are different than any other type of written composition. For example, glossaries may draw together specialized vocabulary—say for medical or theological purposes—but by their very nature they are not intended to blaze any new literary pathways.

There is, invariably, an exception to this rule. Some “dictionaries” are creative exercises. They are works of fiction, and some are entertaining indeed.

The most famous of these satirical works is Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book). The volume is not expressly irreverent, although people of faith will encounter some offensive examples in its pages. However, a number of the entries are brilliant.

Kilt

  1. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

Rank

  1. Relative elevation in the scale of human worth.

He held at court a rank so high

That other noblemen asked why.

“Because,” ’twas answered, “others lack

His skill to scratch the royal back.”

Emancipation

  1. A bondman’s change from the tyranny of another to the despotism of himself.

He was a slave: at word he went and came;

     His iron collar cut him to the bone.

Then Liberty erased his owner’s name,

     Tightened the rivets and inscribed his own.

Goose

  1. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird’s intellectual energies and emotional character, so that when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an “author,” there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl’s thought and feeling. The difference in geese, as discovered by this ingenious method, is considerable: many are found to have only trivial and insignificant powers, but some are seen to be very great geese indeed.

Another Frenchman, Gustave Flaubert, composed his Dictionary of Received Ideas, which found humor in peculiarities of common understandings.

Absinthe

Extra-violent poison: one glass and you’re dead. Newspapermen drink it as they write their copy. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouin.

Archimedes

On hearing his name, shout “Eureka!” Or else: “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world.” There is also Archimedes’ screw, but you are not expected to know what it is.

Omega

Second letter of the Greek alphabet. [Note: this would only apply to biblically literate societies.]

The earliest such example of a satirical dictionary was that by the Persian writer Nezam od-Din Ubeydollah Zâkâni. I have not located a copy of his 14th century lexicon, but it apparently includes entries that are still understandable in our modern world.

Thought

What uselessly makes people ill.

Orator

A donkey.

Word lovers can easily get caught up in conversations like this. In fact, I’m certain more than one Mere Inkling reader has contemplated compiling their own creative dictionary! It’s not an insurmountable project, since it’s accomplished one word at a time.

_____

For those desiring to create their own dictionary “entries” such as the one that graces the top of this blog, there a free meme generator you can use online. Available here, it’s a fun little tool. It’s also suitable for creating a little self-deprecating humor.

dictionary 2

14 responses to Discordant Dictionaries

  1. 

    I’ve always been quite the bookworm so I really enjoy this. Maybe you should read “The Professor & the Madman”. It’s written with many references to the O.E.D.

  2. 

    At Goodwill, I always have an eye out for a foreign language dictionary in a new language. Last month, I scored a 79 cent Lakota/English dictionary. My kids asked me why I wanted it…

    As if the secret of a foreign language were not prize enough.

    I bought a huge German/English dictionary in Bellingham, Washington when I drove my son to college. Months later, I noticed a spot of rubber cement inside the back cover and the words, “CD Behind Desk.” It was another year and a half before I could get back to the same store with my dictionary. Yes, they still had the CD version in a drawer behind the desk.

    As people in the store marveled at the two year loss and recovery story, another customer asked me, “Why do you need such a huge German dictionary?”

    I puzzled for a moment. The question seemed to beg some sort of clever answer. None came.

    “What if I meet a German?” I asked. “What if I have to write him a note?”

    “Oh, yeah, of course!” said the other customer. Meeting a German had not occurred to him.

    Now, if you know of a cheap Crow/English dictionary, please tell me where it can be found.

  3. 

    “A bird that supplies quills for writing”–well done! What a fun post. And I love the quick images that many will miss. Good joke.

  4. 

    LOL! This is classic. Love the header, love the topic. Thanks for a delightful read. :-D

    • 

      This is a humorous subject, and it seems dictionaries come up occasionally in the conversation and thinking of people who love words. (I doubt that’s true for “normal” folks though…)

  5. 

    7) source of delight, and insight with humor.
    Collecting words is a worthy hobby – sharing them is even better.
    Always enjoy the combination of letters here!

    • 

      Thank you (said with a downward gaze and slight blush).

      • 

        Everyone used to be into words…5 -6th grade teachers always said after Christmas the words in writing assignments always got bigger and longer and more creative. Parents used to give Thesauruses and dictionaries for presents to get kids ready for “big school” of Jr High and Hi School

      • 

        That’s true. I got a “collegiate” dictionary from my parents when it was clear I was college-bound. We give our grandkids lots of books (just as we did their parents). Need to be looking for some “beginner dictionaries” pretty soon.

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  1. On the Use of Less Common Words « Mere Inkling - April 4, 2017

    […] I’m one of those people who enjoy using uncommon words. I savor conversations where people naturally incorporate words one rarely hears. I rejoice when I encounter a new word that precisely describes some elusive essence that formerly required a paragraph to explain. […]

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