Friday, 30 November 2012


Battle, Defense, Fortification, Barrier, Trench,
This obviously pictures a particularly bitter neighbourly dispute. There was less shooting in ours. 


Noun. Also abattis. Plural same, -es. Mid-18th century.

Military. A defence formed by placing felled trees lengthwise one over the other with their branches toward the enemy's line.
Also, a barricade of barbed wire. 

Now here's the thrill of reading a dictionary! I've made one of these ... I've actually made one!

Some years ago, my family was involved in a petty boundary dispute with a neighbour who was convinced he had the right of way through an enclosed section of our garden and insisted on making a point of walking through it each day. At the only access point where he could walk from his side into our garden, my father and I constructed an abatis (although I didn't know it was an abatis at the time). Using trees and branches from a recently cleared section of our garden, we constructed a rather effective barrier as described in the definition. In was jolly good fun, and the neighbour never again exercised his "right" to walk into our garden. Huzzah!  

Thursday, 29 November 2012


Pulp fiction, Book, Comic, Cowboy, Wild West, Abactor,


Noun. Obsolete. Mid-17th to early 19th century.
[Latin, from abact- past participial stem of abigere drive away.]

A person who steals cattle in large numbers

I'm curious what thresholds exist that determine whether you're a lowly cow thief, a grizzled rustler or the Kingpin of the cattle-snaffling world, the lofty abactor. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012


Abacus, Calculate, Mathematics, Maths, School, Education, Learning


Noun. Late Middle English.
[medieval Latin abacista]

A person who makes calculations with an abacus

As a child, I was a keen reader of Arthur C Clarke, and this word immediately reminds me of his short story Into the Comet. In it, a spaceship's computer malfunctions and is unable to make the calculations necessary for it to return home. Facing certain death, the crew of the ship form a ramshackle production line of abacists, and are able to replicate the calculations of the computer and complete their mission safely.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


Aardvark, African, Animal, Afrikaans, Insectivore,


Noun. Late 18th century.
[Afrikaans aardvark(en) (now erdvark), from aarde earth + varken pig]

A nocturnal, insectivorous, badger-sized mammal, Orycteropus afer, having large ears, a long snout, and a long extensile tongue, native to sub-Saharan Africa. 

I like this word for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's a distinctly odd looking word in English, with both the double-a and the vark construction being obviously foreign. This oddness suits the animal itself which is most definitely a distinct and peculiar looking creature. 

Also, Aardvark is something of a cliché when it comes to naming businesses as a means to get in ahead of the competition in alphabetised lists. There are a plethora of Aardvark Plumbers, Aardvark Electricals, Aardvark Removals, etc etc, ad nauseam. If you've been trumped in the directory wars by an Aardvarkian competitor, may I suggest the words Aam (a Dutch and German liquid measure) and Aandblom (a sweet scented plant of the Iris family) as possible alternatives. 

Aardvark also has a special place in Lexicolatry (the first place actually) as it is the second word that Blackadder tries to define when attempting to rewrite the whole of Dr Johnson's dictionary that he accidentally destroyed in the classic episode Ink & Incapability. Blackadder defines it as a 'Medium sized insectivore with a protruding nasal implement.' 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Welcome to Lexicolatry

I'm reading through the entire Oxford English Dictionary, and this blog is a record of all the interesting words I find.

Wow. That's it! I can't believe my own brevity! Already, you've decided in your head between "What an interesting project!" or "What an interminable bore!"

(my guess is, if you used the word interminable in your head, you'll probably find this project quite interesting)

So this is the deal: Every day I'm going to read a portion of the OED, and every day I'm going to post one word that I found interesting. I will post the word, its etymology and its definition. I may or may not also post a paragraph or two on why I find that word interesting (probably more likely than not - I've been told I like the sound of my own keyboard).

I promise no rhyme or reason as to why a word might make it to Lexicolatry; there's no specific criteria. I might like the sound, its etymology, its meaning, its obscurity; who knows? All I know is that I will have found it interesting, and I hope that you find it interesting too.

I've read the dictionary before. In my late teens I read through the entire Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary. It's not quite the OED, but it's still a sizeable tome, and I still cherish my battered and annotated copy that I pored through and carried with me wherever I went all those years ago.

I get mixed reactions when I tell people that I've read the entire dictionary. They range from "Wow! You must be the smartest guy in the world!" to "Wow! You must be a complete moron!" Others have asked me if that means I know every single word in the English language and if I'm a genius at games like Scrabble (I don't and I'm not). Probably the most common question people ask is just "Why?"

I love words and I love dictionaries.

To a fellow logophile, this love is obvious, natural and inevitable. To someone that doesn't share this, I can see how it would be difficult to understand, just as I struggle to see how someone could spend hours poring over, say, stamps or iPhone apps 

For me, however, words are so much more than tools to simply transmit what is going on inside our heads and hearts to the outside world. Words also have shapes, patterns, forms, colours, tones, emotions and beauty. They carry shades and subtlety of meaning that are truly breathtaking. Words can be used to inspire or crush, elevate or debase, heal or destroy. Words are beautiful. 

Dictionaries, too, are supremely useful. Your wordy boss or teacher has marked your most recent work as asinine; a dictionary will tell you whether you should be celebrating your forthcoming promotion / scholarship or considering a different career path, at the very least one with a more constructive boss or teacher.

More than being purely utilitarian, however, they are staggering feats of work and human thinking. For whatever reason, words (and familiar words at that) are often exceptionally hard to define. Take the following newspaper headline:

Financial crisis deepens in the Eurozone

It's a sentiment we're likely used to reading on a daily basis. There's no ambiguity about any of it; any native speaker of English understands exactly what is being expressed, both by the words individually and the sentence as a whole. But try, off the top of your head, to define the word crisis. Once you've come up with what you believe to be a satisfactory definition, compare it to the definition in a good dictionary. Now imagine the work and thought that went into that dictionary definition stretched upon the tens of thousands of words in the English language. 

The gap between our seemingly inherent understanding of a word and the monumental task in actually setting its definition to paper is brilliantly expressed in the classic episode of Blackadder Ink and Incapability. In it, Blackadder accidentally destroys the only copy of Dr Samuel Johnson's recently completed dictionary, a work that has taken him ten years to complete. Fearing for his life, Blackadder sets about rewriting the entire dictionary in one night with the help of Baldrick and the Prince Regent. Immediately, they come unstuck on defining the pronoun 'a'. After some head scratching, the best definition they can come up with is:

Impersonal pronoun
Doesn't really mean anything

Granted, the Prince Regent was particularly inept at, well, just about everything, but how many of us can do much better at defining a word as simple as 'a'? And yet none of us have the least problem in using it and understanding it every day of our lives.

So, whether you follow my journey through the dictionary every single day or just dip in and out of it every now and then, I do hope you enjoy something from Lexicolatry (stick with it if only to witness the point at which I realise what a monumental project I've misunderestimated). I will be posting a word daily, and perhaps the occasional language-related article or progress report (on Sundays, I think).

Please feel free to leave any comments on any page, be they why you like a word, how you've used it today, where you've seen it or heard it, or why you positively dislike a word and wish it could be stricken from the language and banished into obscurity forever!

Here's to words and dictionaries, and I do hope you enjoy Lexicolatry with me. 

Many thanks for reading, 


The Tools of Lexicolatry
Principally, I will be using the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary with possible cross-referencing to the Chambers dictionary
Also, a yellow marker, a pen, and lots of Earl Grey tea