Words in your personal dictionary

June 30, 2021

A recent highlight of my reading life – which unlike my blogging life has not been overly affected by the pandemic ­– is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann, 2020). It’s a novel that does several things at once, weaving them successfully into a satisfying whole. It’s a story about love: love of people, of life, of words; it’s a mystery that straddles two eras; and it’s a fun, thoughtful exploration of lexicology.

Paperback book cover. The book is white at the top, sky-blue at the bottom, with the two colours divided through the middle with an uneven, curving line, like a torn page. Below the book title is a bird photographed in flight with mouth wide open, its throat red, breast yellow, and head and wing grey. Under the 'tear', the bird's body is in illustrated black and white. The top-half text is in dark purple, the bottom-half text in gold. As well as the title and author's name, there is also: 'Author of Attrib.' and a few short blurbs. Observer: 'A playful delight ... A glorious novel'. Spectator: 'Joyous'. Sunday Times: 'Remarkable'.

Design by Suzanne Dean

Most notably for my purposes here, the book is a word lover’s delight. Williams, who studied mountweazels as part of her PhD, has a deep interest in the nature and business not only of words – their emergence, development, and complex interaction with our minds and expressive apparatus – but also of word collection and definition: the creation and maintenance of dictionaries, and the semantic murk waded through routinely by lexicographers (and occasionally, less systematically, by the rest of us).

In The Liar’s Dictionary, the paraphernalia of writing might be overlaid on anything at all, to sometimes striking effect:

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Seven videos about language

February 5, 2021

A few years ago I shared six videos about language, so posting seven this time may set a perilous precedent. (I’ve also blogged a bunch of others, before and since, if you want still more audiovisual diversion.)

Below, there are two short, three medium, and two long videos, in that order. See what grabs your fancy.

A wild one to begin: Why Werner Herzog refuses to speak French:

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Awkness: an old word made new again

January 28, 2021

In a recent conversation, I heard the word awkness in reference to a socially awkward situation. I hadn’t heard it before, but its meaning was obvious in context. After all, its cousin awks ‘awkward’ has been around a while; I’ve even used it myself.

When I looked into awkness, I had a surprise. It sounds, as I said on Twitter, like a millennial coinage – and it is, more or less. But not originally: the OED dates awkness to the late 16th century, defining it thesaurusily as ‘wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude’.

The first citation is from a 1587 religious book by Philippe de Mornay (tr. Philip Sidney & Arthur Golding): ‘The skilfull can work much upon little, and by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.’ The citations continue till 1674, with the word also spelled awknesse, awknes, and aukness.

And then: obsolescence.

Well, not exactly.

OED entry for 'awkness'. Etymology: < 'awk' adj. + '-ness' suffix. Obsolete. Definition: 'Wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude.' Citations: 1587: Sir P. Sidney & A. Golding tr. P. de Mornay, 'Trewnesse Christian Relig'. xxxii. 595 'The skilfull [man] can..by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.' 1615: S. Hieron 'Dignitie of Preaching' in 'Wks.' (1620) I. 602 'A reprobate awknes to all good.' 1658: W. Gurnall, 'Christian in Armour: 2nd Pt.' 448: 'So much awknesse and unwillingnesse to come to Gods foot.' 1668: W. Spurstowe, Spiritual Chymist Pref.' 5: 'Awkness to this beneficial employment.' 1674: N. Fairfax. 'Treat. Bulk & Selvedge' 171: 'By shewing the aukness or great absurdity on the other side.' Read the rest of this entry »


The OED Text Visualizer

June 27, 2020

The OED Text Visualizer is an amazing new research tool from OED Labs based on a powerful data engine that automatically annotates text. The Visualizer displays etymological information in an attractive visual format that can ‘open up new areas of questioning and means of discovery’.

It works like this: Paste up to 500 words into the box on this page, add the text’s date, click the button, and you get an instant display of word origins, helpfully colour-coordinated, along a 1,000-year timeline.

Here’s what I got with the first eight paragraphs of my post on the word culchie:

[click to embiggen]

Screengrab of the OED Text Visualizer. It shows a rectangular display with colour-coded bubbles of various sizes scattered along a timescale from before the year 1000 up to 2000 on the x-axis. Along the top are the colour codes: English, in blue (97), Germanic, in dark green (82), Romance, in red (66), Latin, in purple (23), other, in yellow (6), and Celtic, in orange (1).

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86 that slang etymology

May 17, 2019

Sometimes the universe hints strongly at what I should write about. Recently I read two books in close succession that featured the same curious slang word, used in different ways and worth a quick study. For one thing, it’s not just a word but a number: 86.

First there was Merritt Tierce’s fierce first novel Love Me Back. Its narrator, who works in a restaurant, says:

Later that day I am in the wine cellar updating the eighty-sixed list when the Bishop’s handler comes by.

Then I read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant comic memoir Fun Home, which shows another usage of 86 and a speculative origin story – but is it true? (Click images to embiggen.)

Two comic-book frames. #1 shows Bechdel and her mother on a street outside a building, with a tree and a passing stranger also visible. Bechdel: "Where was your apartment?" Mother, pointing: "4-E, up there." #2 shows them walking past an old wooden door. Mother: "This is Chumley's. Dad and I used to come drink here." Bechdel: "It's a bar? How come there's no sign?"

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Book review: ‘The Dictionary of Difficult Words’ by Jane Solomon and Louise Lockhart

April 26, 2019

Early English dictionaries, such as A Table Alphabeticall (1604), did not aim to be thorough. Instead they defined only difficult and specialised vocabulary – the assumption being that ordinary, familiar words did not need explaining. There are practical benefits to learning difficult words, and they often have aesthetic and intellectual appeal too, whether they are ‘lost’ words or simply outside the everyday trade of language.

Book cover of The Dictionary of Difficult Words. It is mainly dark blue, with lots of individual letters and small images scattered about, such as a worm, boat, guitar, rainbow, and butterfly. In the middle is a pink rectangle with ragged edges. Inside it is the title, in red and white text, and the author and illustrator's name in black underneath.Children in particular can be delighted by weird and wonderful words. And children in particular will lap up The Dictionary of Difficult Words, a new book written by lexicographer Jane Solomon and illustrated by Louise Lockhart. It’s aimed principally at readers aged 7–12, but this is a publication that will brighten anyone’s bookshelf. It would be very much at home in school libraries too.

Before opening the book, I was struck by how attractive it is as an object. The large, slim hardback has an embossed title and beautiful texture on the cover. The design throughout is fun and expressive, with multiple drawings or collages on every page. The whole package is artfully coloured and styled, with lexical and graphic marvels galore.

Some definitions are pithy:

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50 lost words from the OED

April 17, 2019

Ammon Shea loves dictionaries – especially the OED. He loves the OED so much, he read it – the whole thing, in its second edition: 21,730 pages with around 59 million words. It took him a year, full-time, and he wrote a book about it, titled Reading the OED (2008).

This is not a review, but it is a recommendation. Reading the OED will charm anyone who’s into dictionaries and words, especially unusual ones, or anyone curious about unusual hobbies and passions-slash-afflictions. (I did review Shea’s 2014 book Bad English, an entertaining historical snapshot of the English usage wars.)

Book cover of "Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages". The cover shows a man lying on his back on the grass with his hands crossed on his belly and a volume of the OED open on his face. He's probably asleep.When I said Shea loves dictionaries, I meant he really, really loves them. (This repetition of really is an example of epizeuxis, which is defined below.) Before the book came out, he moved house and brought 45 boxes: dictionaries filled 41 of them. As well as the 20-volume second edition of the OED, he owns the 13-volume 1933 edition, the four-volume supplement, the two- and ten-volume Shorter OEDs, the condensed-type edition, and ‘a random single-volume edition’. ‘Each has its own usefulness,’ he assures us. Certainly these things are relative, but I don’t doubt him for an instant.

So what was it like to read the biggest, most celebrated dictionary ever compiled – ‘the most coveted and desirable book in the world’, as Oliver Sacks wrote? ‘It is resolutely, obstinately, and unapologetically exhaustive,’ writes Shea. ‘These qualities make it both a tremendous joy to read at some times and unbearably boring at others.’

How boring? Consider the un- prefix:

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