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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some alphabet soup to celebrate Dictionary Day!
** Linger to contrast the virtues of three very different dictionaries.
** Savor a last ½ cup considering what your favorite word might be…
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You have every word at your disposal
and it is solely up to you how to use them.
To my mind, that’s freedom.
– from The Playwright’s Guidebook
by Stuart Spencer
Slice of Cake:
Earlier this month
America celebrated National Dictionary Day!
October 16 was chosen because it’s the birthday of Noah Webster.
Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language
in 1806 in Hartford, Connecticut.
The first American English dictionary.
For the rest of his life, Webster collected definitions and
published dictionaries and spelling books.
If you’re an American, you should thank Noah.
He’s the one who saved you from the overabundance of ‘u’
in neighbour, favour, and out of humour.
He’s the one who championed er over re
in centre, metre, and… theatre.
If, as a traveler, rather than a traveller,
you can recognize the difference in recognise,
and if you needn’t maneuver around the word manoeuvre—
Happy National Dictionary Day!!
Next year, it’ll be on a Friday.
Friday, October 16, 2020
I might just have a party.
I’ve been thinking this week about just how much I geek out on dictionaries.
Some of the dictionaries on my shelf:
– Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms (1951)
– The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (1935)
– Roget’s Thesaurus, new edition revised and enlarged (1936)
– The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, edited by JM and MJ Cohen (1960). I love this one.
– From Archetype to Zeitgeist, a helpful dictionary of abstract academic ideas by Herbert Kohl. (1993)
– a Spanish/English dictionary
– a ‘medical dictionary for the non-professional’
– a rhyming dictionary
– Also, bookmarked on my laptop, I have dictionary.com and urbandictionary.com.
depending on how you define ‘dictionary’ (dictionary of cocktails, anyone?)
I own between 10 and 15 of them.
Here are my 3 Favorites Dictionaries:
Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary, unabridged (2002) 2662 pages
One Christmas, maybe a dozen years ago, Prof B got me
the best present ever…
And the stand to keep it on.
Roget’s International Thesaurus (1960) 680 pages
Some modern writers, however, have indulged
in a habit of arbitrarily fabricating new words and a
new-fangled phraseology, without any necessity,
and with manifest injury to the purity of the language.
This vicious practice,
the result of indolence or deceit, implies an
ignorance or neglect of…words of recognized legitimacy,
conveying precisely the same meaning as those they
so recklessly coin in the illegal mint of their own fancy.
– Peter M Roget
from the introduction to
Roget’s Thesaurus,1st edition
In keeping with the trend of the times
the editors of subsequent editions have progressively
increased the space given over to colloquialisms, dialect terms and slang.
The present edition is almost as complete with respect
to these much-neglected groups of words in our language
as with regard to standard expressions.
– from notes in the introduction to
Roget’s International Thesaurus, 19th printing
New York 1960
The problem with defending the purity of the English language
is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore.
We don’t just borrow words;
on occasion, English has pursued other languages
down alleyways to beat them unconscious and
rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.
– James Nicoll,
Me: You know what I need? I need a good thesaurus.
B: I have just the thing.
(fetches a book from the other room)
Me: No! I don’t mean an old hand-me-down. I want a new, good thesaurus. This one’s older than we are.
B: Try this for a week or so. Then see what you say.
Me: Yeah, yeah.
two days later
Me: I LOVE this thesaurus! I am… (reads page) induced, persuaded, prevailed upon, drawn in, won over, overcome, brought round, brought to reason, brought to one’s senses, lead, hooked in [slang], landed [colloquialism], sold, moved by influence or persuasion, turned one’s head, turned the scale; determined; disposed; enlisted; procured; engaged; coaxed; wheeled; cajoled; convinced; etc!
“Do all those words mean the same thing?” gasped Milo.
“Wouldn’t it be simpler to use just one?”…
“Bosh,” they chorused again…
“One word is as good as another—so why not use them all?”
“Then you don’t have to choose which one is right.”…
“If one is right, then ten are ten times as right.”
“I never knew words could be so confusing,”
Milo said to Tock as he
bent down to scratch the dog’s ear.
“Only when you use a lot to say a little,” answered Tock.
– from The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
in Chapter 3: Welcome to Dictionopolis
Winston Simplified Dictionary (1928) 836 pages
This dictionary belonged to my mother and her six sisters when they were schoolgirls.
I know they shared it because they all signed it.
And added to the illustrations. And doodled pictures of their own.
Two of the sisters added “grade nine” after their name, which probably means they all used this dictionary in high school. This was the mid-1930s into the 1950s.
The penciled-in price is $2.00.
It’s precious to me as an heirloom and a glimpse into sisterly shenanigans, but it’s also useful.
Having an older dictionary around means access to older definitions of common words.
Look at this use of the word ‘puppy’ in the Jane Austen novel, Emma:1
When Mrs Elton says…
“You must know I have a vast dislike to puppies—quite a horror of them. They were never tolerated at Maple Grove. Neither Mr. Suckling nor me had ever any patience with them… Selina, who is mild almost to a fault, bore with them much better.”
…she is not talking about baby dogs.
(She may be ‘absolutely insufferable,’ but she’s no dog-hater.)
In the sentence before this, she says:
“I think him a very handsome young man, and his manners are precisely what I like and approve—so truly the gentleman, without the least conceit or puppyism.”
Mrs Elton clearly likes this word. Here she is again:
“I had an acrostic once set to me…which I was not at all pleased with. I knew who it came from. An abominable puppy! You know whom I mean” (nodding to her husband).
And it’s not only Augusta Elton who talks of puppies in this way.
The sensible and ‘always welcome’ Mr Knightly says:
“To be dispensing his flatteries around, that he may make all appear like fools compared with himself! My dear Emma, your own good sense could not endure such a puppy when it came to the point.”
When I look up the word puppy in recent dictionaries—even in my 2662-page dictionary—they don’t mention any human version of puppy.
But older dictionaries do.
Webster’s 1828 edition says “applied to persons, a name expressing extreme contempt.”2
Which sounds pretty vague. Austen seems to use the word quite specifically.
My mother’s 1928 dictionary nails it, I think:
1. a young dog.
2. a conceited young man; a silly fop.
Of course, Austen uses the word in the doggy-sense as well.
In Mansfield Park, Lady Bertram promises:
“The next time Pug has a litter you shall have a puppy.”
“Half Cup More”
Given my love of dictionaries, of course
I have a favorite word.
And I learned it from Edith Wharton.
We were still engaged in placidly digesting
around the ravaged luncheon table
when a servant dashed in to say that
the Fifth Avenue Hotel was on fire.
Oh, then the fun began—and what fun it was!
…We were going to have the excitement of seeing the
Fire Brigade in action (supreme joy of the New York youngster)…
New York’s invincible Brigade…in a glare of polished brass,
and horses shining like table-silver.
– from New Year’s Day
a novella by Edith Wharton
set in the 1870s and collected in the book
Old New York (1924)
How well do my dictionaries agree
on the definition of coruscate?
definition from dictionary.com
to emit vivid flashes of light; sparkle; scintillate; gleam.
definition from my Mom’s 1928 dictionary
1. to sparkle, gleam as lightning
2. to shine intellectually
definition from my 2662-page dictionary
1. to gleam with intermittent flashes, glitter, sparkle.
2. to be brilliant or showy in technique or style
3. to be brilliant or keen in intelligence or wit.
“Pop,” said Sam, “what does ‘crepuscular’ mean?”
“How should I know?” replied Mr Beaver.
“I never heard the word before.”
“It has something to do with rabbits,” said Sam.
“It says here that a rabbit is a crepuscular animal.”
“Probably means timid,” said Mr Beaver.
“Or maybe it means that it can run like the dickens.
Or maybe it means stupid. A rabbit will sit right in the
middle of the road at night and stare into your headlights…”
“Well,” said Sam, “I guess the only way
to find out what ‘crepuscular’ means is to
look it up in the dictionary.”
“We haven’t got a dictionary here,” said Mr Beaver.
“You’ll have to wait till we get back to the ranch.”
– from The Trumpet of the Swan
by E B White
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
You Can Read More…
photo credit & footnotes:
Thank you again, Gail Halm,
for the use of your beautiful wildlife photo.
Thank you to Project Gutenburg for helping me find
all of Jane Austen’s puppies.
Project Gutenberg is powered totally by volunteers.
Webster’s 1828 dictionary is available on-line,
fully searchable and a lot of fun.
Look for webstersdictionary1828.com
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2023
12 thoughts on “The Right Word”
My favorite word is circumlocution.
Thank you, honey!
Here’s how Webster (1828) defined it:
** Circumlocution, noun
A circuit or compass of words; a periphrase;
the use of a number of words to express an idea, when a suitable term is not at hand,
or when a speaker chooses to avoid the use of a single term, either from delicacy or respect,
or with a view to soften the force of a direct expression, or for other reason.
Oh, and I had to look up ‘periphrase.’
It’s pretty much the opposite of ‘paraphrase.’
Lovely post, Kelly.
1) I did not know that you had a dictionary once owned by mom and her sisters, let alone that they wrote notes in the margins! What a treasure, and hurrah that it won the puppy challenge. I can’t wait to explore it with you.
2) I love the story of you, Prof B and the thesaurus. I also have a beloved story about thesauri (a word I did not know existed until just now when my spellcheck suggested it, lol).
When my daughter was in primary school and struggling through a writing assignment, she came to
me asking about synonyms, and in frustration said:
“I wish there was just a book filled with words that mean the same so you could just look them
Oh, my god, music to a language-loving mother’s ears.
Me: “Well, my dear …”
3) That James Nicoll quote is one of my very favorites of all time.
Oh, and I will here publicly admit that I had to look up “crepuscular”.
Thank you, Patricia!
I love your thesaurus story.
Do you have a favorite word?
Oh, and I will publicly admit that it was after reading ‘The Trumpet of the Swan’ aloud to my kids that I also had to go look up ‘crepuscular.’
Crepuscular is a great word about a lovely time of the day. 🙂
As to favorite words, I always have difficulty deciding on my feelings about superlatives. I’m a “can’t make up my mind”-kind of girl. It shifts daily, hourly, even.
Right now my favorite words are probably all brain-related. Things like “Purkinje cells”, which visually live up to their lovely, interesting name. Also, neuro-folks like to blend words together and throw in multiple prefixes and suffixes so we end up with words like “cytoarchitectonic” (cytoarchitecture being probably one of my most favorite words right now), and “adrenalectomized”. Sometimes it’s like they can’t stop themselves and end up with words like “immunohistochemical”, which make my spellcheck go completely bonkers.
Great words, all! And thank you for saying what they mean.
Here’s the closest Webster (1828) gets to ‘immunohistochemical’:
1. Freedom or exemption from obligation. To be exempted from observing the rites or duties of the church, is an immunity
2. Exemption from any charge, duty, office, tax or imposition; a particular privilege; as the immunities of the free cities of Germany; the immunities of the clergy.
3. Freedom; as an immunity from error.
Oh, wait! Here’s more for ‘immunohistochemical’…
Also according to Webster’s 1828 dictionary:
** Chimical, adjective (see Chimistry.)
1. Pertaining to chimistry; as a chimical operation.
2. Resulting from the operation of the principles of bodies by decomposition, combination, etc.; as in chimical changes.
(And to think I spent 13 years as ‘chimist’—between getting my degree, and working in all those ‘chimistry’ labs—and I never even knew it!)
The whole time I was reading this, I was hearing my favorite word in my head, fellow word geek that I am, when suddenly you used it.
Crepuscular!! It’s my favorite word in French (crépuscule), and my favorite time of day.
Thank you, Tim!
Here’s how Webster (1828) defined it:
** Crepuscular, adjective
Pertaining to twilight; glimmering;
noting the imperfect light of the morning and evening; hence, imperfectly clear or luminous.