1. a love of words
I was trying to understand the roots of the words gymnastics, which came from the Greek gymnasium. Was it a word about activity? A place where you do activity, or with the body, perhaps? I was given another word gymnanthous which was defined further as achlamydeous, and I vented that this was the problem with dictionaries. You look up a word, and it hyper-links to another word you don’t know and so on. (Achlamydeous=having neither calyx nor corolla). Like googling websites, you link and link, and suddenly it was a rabbit hole that ate up a half hour of your day.
Yet, it was glorious, wasn’t it?
Apparently, I’m not alone. When I put this on social media, I found that I know many people who get starry-eyed at the thought of dictionaries, many who used to thumb through them at leisure, and some who own them. My People! (They also are quite fond of buttered toast, but who isn’t?)
My online dictionary.com says that oxford comes from the town, but the town was Oxnaford, a place where you could cross (ford) the river with your oxen. This is the Year of the Ox–my year–which reminds me of my Oxford English Dictionary story. I was 20, in college living in a cramped studio near the trash cans of a large apartment building, ten blocks off campus, no car. I ordered the OED from a magazine out of curiosity–it was only like $25–and I had a part-time job. It arrived at the Post Office, five blocks away, and when I went to pick it up, I was shocked to realize it weighs about 25 pounds. Which doesn’t sound heavy, but if you are near 25 pounds, pick it up and start carrying it around. For five blocks. Next time, wait for a friend who has a car.
The Oxford English Dictionary was started in 1857 by a group of braniacs who wanted to list not only each English word but all key usages, to show the word’s evolution and lifespan. Interesting idea. Logistical nightmare. How do you know every key time a word is used? How do you even compile such a thing–without a computer or any database? It took until 1884 just for the A-Ant volume to be published, and that was because they found a self-educated Scotsman, James Murray, to organize the project.
Murray’s innovation to speed up data collection was to ask the “general public” for help in finding quotations. The project then turned from a problem of data gathering to the difficulties of data collation, as soon the group was buried under paper. Big breakthroughs then came from one contributor, William C. Minor, who reportedly collected over 10,000 entries. He was a prisoner in an asylum for the criminally insane.
Noun: Scottish law : indemnification for injury specifically : the satisfaction formerly demandable by the family of a person slain but now superseded by damages recoverable by an action — compare manbote
It’s a wonderful story told in the book, The Professor and the Madman, which is covered in an excellent movie on Netflix, starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. I am not a Gibson fan, but he’s very good in this film as is Sean Penn. Much of what is covered in the fascinating story is true, but I will warn that there is an autopenectomy (look it up, that’s what dictionaries and wikipedias are for) scene, which really did happen, so you may want to FF through that part. Strangely enough, we were watching another TV show this week with a similar scene, and I certainly hope it won’t start a trend. The movie is highly recommended.
It Ain’t Spelt that Weigh
Most of us are more familiar with Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, from which I am extracting many of these definitions. Actually, I typically use dictionary.com, which is Random House, although it show this annoying crawl of random words at the top, which is distracting when I am just trying to look up calyx. Oh, but what is kyanite and why is it trending? (A: a kind of rock. Where are my geologists? Why is kyanite important?)
Noah Webster was an important guy in American history for two reasons. First, he created a spelling book, “The Blue-Backed Speller,” which was used for a century in those one-room schoolhouses. It was a new way to teach; he organized the words according to the student’s age, believing that pupils passed through stages of learning. This put him a hundred years ahead of his time in understanding theories of cognitive development. The speller broke down words into simpler parts. The book proved so popular it helped launch spelling bees.
From there, Webster decided to start compiling a dictionary starting in 1806. As with all these word-listing projects, it took him nearly twenty years. The final version had 70,000 words, of which 12,000 hadn’t been included before. Webster was also noted for “standardizing” American spellings. One historian points out that he’s sometimes credited for creating the spellings, but that’s not exactly true. Americanized, simplified spellings existed, and he chose to use them. He emphasized the phonetic parts of the words, which is why he removed the extra “u” from English words like colour or reordered centre to the more logical center. He also added American/Native American words like skunk.
Noun: a reference source in print or electronic form containing words usually alphabetically arranged; from dic-, variant stem of dīcere “to talk, speak, say, utter” going back to Indo-European *dei̯ḱ- “show, point out,” (whence Old English tēon “to accuse,” Old Saxon aftīhan “to deny,” Old High German zīhan “to accuse”…)
Merriam, as it turns out, was not so interesting. The Merriams were printers who bought the rights of publication to the dictionary after Noah’s death. They just reaped the profits. And put their names first. Americana at its best!
Ask that Guy by the Cash Register
John Bartlett was another brainy kid who had read the Bible by age nine and finished school by sixteen. He traveled to Harvard to work at the University bookstore and, within a few years, owned the store. He had such a good memory for collecting quotes that his regular patrons, people who frequented musty old bookstores (More of My People!), would “Ask Bartlett” for the origin of sayings.
Thus, was born Bartlett’s Quotations, another fun little book of theme-based ideas. It’s a great source if you ever want a pithy little saying. My favorite entry that I am fond of quoting was from Prince Charles: Never pass a bathroom. I often thought of poor old Charlie, standing around at these lengthy public ceremonies, whisked from one ribbon-cutting to the next, using his opportunities wisely.
Surrounded by Madness, Turn to Words
The fellow who worked on the OED wasn’t the only person who worked on dictionaries while in prison. Drug-dealer Randy Kearse wrote Street Talk, a slang-based dictionary compiled from his peers during his eight-year stretch. Malcolm X read and copied out the dictionary as a way of learning to read and write. William Minor of the OED also wasn’t the only person to work with words as a way to stave off insanity. Another person who did that used words to combine into handy groups: Peter Mark Roget.
Noun: pathologically incoherent, repetitious speech.incessant or compulsive talkativeness; wearisome volubility.
Roget suffering from depression, as did several of his relatives. Both a grandmother and his mother were paranoid schizophrenics. His daughter and sister had mental problems, and an uncle, who happened to be a member of Parliament, committed suicide in his presence. Madness runs in families; I also have uncles, aunts, and grand-relatives who had similar issues. Roget turned to obsessive-compulsive behavior to cope with the trauma that surrounded him and probably the neurons over-firing in his brain.
The thesaurus was a hit in Britain but not in America until the 1920s, when a crossword craze fad spread like wildfire. Nowadays, Roget‘s is a best-seller, certainly always at the right-hand of most writers. My wife’s thesaurus has tabs in it; she likes to thumb through the thematically-organized grouping. I prefer the straight alphabetical version. Some critics call the thesaurus a crutch. I prefer to think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Sometimes you get stuck thinking of the proper word and given how easy it is for writers to get sidetracked, you really don’t want any more of that than is necessary.
[ ses-kwi-pi-dey-lee-uhn, -deyl-yuhn ]
Adjective: given to using long words.(of a word) containing many syllables.
1605–15; <Latin sēsquipedālis measuring a foot and a half (see sesqui-, pedal) + -an
Sorry, what was I saying? I was looking up language and came across this wonderful, foot-and-a-half long word. That’s auto-logical, a word that describes itself.
Gymnasium is a place where Greeks exercised naked–it means naked. Gymnanthous is a plant that doesn’t have a covering (a calyx). A gymnasiarch is what the Greeks called the Superintendent of the gym, who I think was named Steve. A gymnoplast is a bunch protoplasm without a wall covering, like a white blood corpuscle. I wouldn’t know a corpuscle if I saw it, and I couldn’t figure out if daffodils have calyxes or not, but here is a picture of daffodils.