Americanisms, Charlton Laird, David P. Stang, Etymology, James Boswell, Language and the Dictionary, Lexicographic Gratification, Lexicography, Mitford M. Mathews, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, William E. Umbach
(Ed. note: My friend Dave chose to entitle this essay ‘Lexicographic Gratification’ and somewhat reluctantly agreed to my adding ‘Confessions of an Introvert’ to his title. I think he prefers to think of himself as an ambivert.)
By David Stang
Fred Scharf, the husband of my second cousin Anne Phillips and the only lawyer and intellectual in my whole extended family, gave me a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary bearing the same copyright date, 1957, as my graduation from high school. Bookish Uncle Fred told me to “treasure it by reading its definitions for the pure pleasure of learning new words, including synonyms, antonyms and etymology – meaning the study of word origins. Besides that,” he said, “you’ll find tons of amazing information up front before the dictionary section begins and at the end after the last word beginning with the letter Z.”
This was an entirely new way of viewing dictionaries, in fact, nearly the opposite of how I felt about them, particularly, when as a schoolboy, I would ask my mother what is the meaning of ‘X word’? And she would say,”Go look it up and that way you’ll remember it better than if I tell you.” I would usually answer her by saying, “Mom, it’s a complete waste of time to go look it up in the dictionary when you already know the answer and can tell me now.” Sometimes I could browbeat her into giving me the answer, but usually she sternly pointed to the big unabridged dictionary resting atop its own four foot high podium. As soon as she would walk out of the room, I would whisper to myself, “The hell with it. I’m not looking it up.”
But that night back in 1957 I sat on the edge of my bed near the reading lamp, opened my new dictionary and discovered that Uncle Fred was right. There was an amazing amount of essays and commentary on the history of lexicography, etymology, the beauty and depth of the English language, and on and on. And at the back of the dictionary there were tables of all kinds: names and addresses of all the colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, symbols, abbreviations, proper forms of address, and a load of other miscellaneous information. I said to myself, “Maybe Uncle Fred is right. I ought to start reading this stuff. Maybe I should become a word junkie.” But would I ever really be able to convince myself that looking up words in the dictionary is more fun than a barrel of monkeys?
Anyway, I started to read the first article in my new dictionary which was about the history of the English language and the history of lexicography. I got about as far as the author’s discourse on the linguistic influence on the English language contributed by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. In less than a minute I concluded that ‘All this crap is complicated and boring. I’m not going to waste another minute reading it.’ Then I reflected for a moment and realized I would seriously need this dictionary when I started college at the end of the summer because if I were doing some kind of course assignment and spotted a word I didn’t know I’d be better off looking it up than faking it.
While studying to earn my B.A., J.D. and M.T.S. degrees, I relied upon that dictionary quite a bit. Even more so years later when I was reading for pleasure and didn’t know the meaning of a word or when I was researching and writing a number of articles and a few books. By my recent off the cuff estimate, I must have used that dictionary at least 25,000 times. But rarely – in fact never – did I dare take the time to wallow extensively in all that good stuff printed before and after the dictionary part of the book.
This morning my wonderful Dominican housekeeper, Panchita Morris, was here to clean the house. This meant I was pretty well confined to sitting at the dining room table while Panchita tidied up the place. And what did I see lying on the dining room table? That very same dictionary. As I stared at that well used book I wondered if I had the gumption, curiosity, and mental discipline to dig into some of those tables and essays just for the hell of discovering what they had to say and whether after six decades was any of it still valid.
I began my journey with Special Signs And Symbols and discovered that the ‘F’ word in biology means “filial generation or offspring” and that female organisms are denoted by a circle and their male counterparts are symbolized by a square. That latter symbol struck me as possibly resulting from a militant feminist conspiracy. Calling somebody a square is a real insult.
In another table denoted as Mathematics there was a subsection listed as Numeration. There I learned that VIII was also IIX and that (90) XC equaled LXXXX. Had I known that six decades ago I probably would have been able to pass Latin.
What I learned from the Tables Of Weights And Measures completely blew my mind. 16 and 1/2 feet equals 5 and 1/2 yards. This length equals one rod. And one rod equals one pole, and one pole equals a single perch. Even though rod, pole, and perch are clearly synonyms, I’d guess that not one has an antonym. After watching the Kentucky Derby on television every May and hearing the announcer mention how many furlongs were still left to be run, I never had a clue what he was talking about. So it was comforting to learn that 40 rods equal one furlong and eight furlongs equal 1760 yards or 5280 feet, or, more briefly, one mile.
Measurement of quantities of produce is equally interesting. One summer in Ireland a farmer friend dropped by the house generously to present me with a humongous half a peck of fresh strawberries. I didn’t want to reveal my ignorance by asking him how much is a peck. Had I consulted the Tables Of Weights And Measures I would have known that a peck is eight quarts and that four pecks equals a bushel.
James Brosnan, a long-term friend in Ireland, owns a pharmacy. From time to time I hear him talking shop with one of his assistants and have no idea what they are discussing. Turning to the Tables one more time I learned that a gill is equal to four fluid ounces. A subsection entitled Apothecaries’ Fluid Measure informs us that one minim equals .0038 cubic inch, that 60 minims equal one fluid dram, and that eight fluid drams is equal to one fluid ounce. When you consider the potential toxicity of nearly every pharmaceutical concoction, you fearfully come to recognize that a single extra minim could quickly kill you.
Let’s now scoot to the Dictionary’s front. There, following its usage guide, appears the first essay, Language and the Dictionary by Charlton Laird. This author was a proud lexicographer, and in his essay he spells out the history of English dictionaries, quickly mentioning Samuel Johnson, commonly recognized as the father of the modern English dictionary. Johnson liked to ridicule his friend and biographer, the Scotsman James Boswell. He did so by defining the word ‘Oats’: “A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Laird then recalled for us that “The founder of the American school of lexicography was Noah Webster, whose An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828 and frequently revised and enlarged) was a truly remarkable work, especially for its day and place…”
Our next essay, Etymology by William E. Umbach, tells us that there were some amazing esoteric and rather spooky elements in the manner in which ancient intellectuals regarded the spoken word. The ancient Greeks, he wrote, “were engaging in no idle quest; they, like much earlier primitive man, sensed a mysterious relationship between the word and that for which it stands. To know how to pronounce the word correctly would give the user power over that thing or being, a principle of great importance in the exercise of witchcraft. But conversely it could also be dangerous to pronounce the names of certain beings, for to do so might arouse the anger of the imminent spirit.”
“Thus” Umbach continues, “some taboo names eventually disappeared through silence. The English name bear, for example, is derived from an ancient term meaning ‘the brown one’, and people used that name when discussing that beast instead of its true name. In ancient days many a hunter was killed by bears so when out hunting they concluded it’s best not to refer directly to that beast as a bear. Just mentioning his name could have the power of inviting the voracious beast to come eat you for dinner.
Our author also explains a well-known linguistic phenomenon: language is dynamic and the people’s usage, pronunciations, and spellings of it undergo change over time. Also, the popularity of individual words come and go and often disappear from common usage to be found only in dictionaries where they are listed as archaic.
The two-page essay entitled Americanisms by Mitford M. Mathews explains how American English came to differ from the way the language is spoken in England but also how well educated Englishmen have looked down their nose at the way Americans were butchering their language. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the English upper crust were revolted by not only American pronunciations of the language but also outrageous by neologisms that the Americans were adding to the English language. Thomas Jefferson became notorious for words he invented and made popular prior to, during, and after the American Revolutionary period.
One of the words Jefferson coined was “belittle” and another was “lengthy.” English lexicographers were appalled that not only Jefferson, but also George Washington and Alexander Hamilton spoke and wrote the word “lengthy” frequently. Some Englishmen regarded such unorthodox American usage as a horrific linguistic atrocity. It could be said that all of the former English colonies uniquely and universally managed to butcher their mother tongue. That of course was not achieved out of a felonious premeditative intent, but simply for the pragmatic purpose of improving clarity, precision, and a more refined meaning, in addition to the necessary creation of neologisms. But Mathews, as all lexicographers, adopted a quasi-Darwinian view of all languages, irrespective of their roots. Languages evolve, just like living plant and animal species do.
As you can easily infer, the time had finally come for me to accept my role model Uncle Fred’s invitation to investigate the “tons of amazing information up front before the dictionary section begins and at the end after the last word beginning with the letter Z.” Better six decades of delayed gratification than never.
To tell you the truth, looking back to my teenage years, when he handed me the gift of that dictionary and told me to “treasure it by reading its definitions for the pure pleasure of learning new words, including synonyms, antonyms and etymology,” I thought he was not only a weirdo but also completely nuts. I believed at that time that everyone knows learning new words is a flaming pain in the butt and is anything but pleasure. How times have changed – at least for me.
For the past forty some years I have kept a notebook of what I consider to be interesting new words and just last month I typed them into a Word document so that I wouldn’t have to keep drawing arrows in the margins to show where recent word acquisitions should be inserted.
Finally, I’ll admit that I do indeed derive “pure pleasure from learning new words” as my Uncle Fred foretold I would. But thank God I enjoy other pleasures as well. Otherwise, by now I would have become a lexicographer. And you can’t get much more introverted than that, now can you?