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:

A
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, 

Eddie

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

17 comments:

  1. Loving the posts...Keep them coming, my vocabulary is augmenting exponentially! ;-)

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  2. I have no idea on God's green earth how you found my blog but glad you did. I am envious that you have an OED I know it is the Shorter but still they are spendy and you don't find them at thrift stores.

    I read books on etymology and definitions to my two home schooled daughters!! Poor children! Just yesterday we were watching a documentary on India an they started discussing all the languages Sanskrit has influenced. They didn't mention English at first and my eight-year-old murmurs "English, too." Wow. It pays.

    I know I am bragging on my daughter but I am so excited to find someone doing this that I have become unnecessarily verbose.

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    1. Ha! This is the place for verbosity, Melissa : o )

      The OED was a gift from my Mum, one of the best presents she ever gave me (dictionaries are most underrated as gifts!).

      Please keep reading Lexicolatry, and as a fellow logophile your comments on any words you find interesting will be most appreciated!

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  3. Thanks for the compliment on my Scrabble picture. I used to read the dictionary for pleasure as a kid, but haven't done so for many years. Maybe I should revisit that old habit. Methinks I should be following your blog.

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    1. The comments of a fellow dictionary reader would be most welcome ... methinks you should be following too : o )

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  4. Words are beautiful. I love them too.

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    1. It's always a pleasure to meet someone with that shared love, Courtney.

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  5. I read "a" dictionary before. When I was about 10, 11 years old my parents or grandparents (not sure) gave me a super cute and awesome pink first dictionary. It was sort of a crossing between a dictionary and an encyclopaedia, and I read it front to back over and over again. Best gift ever! Now I look at the Van Dale (Dutch dictionary) and get discouraged. :P Those are a looooot of volumes, each counting a looooot of pages... I don't remember if I ever told you this but I admire your courage.

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  6. I'm so glad you stumbled across my blog, because I have now come upon yours! I had a Dorling Kindersley dictionary as a kid that I used to love to read, and as a result, was often the point of many jokes. I remember a certain incident where a kid yelled out "Emily reads the dictionary!" instead of "Cheese!" when we had a group picture taken. I still have that dictionary. Ah, memories.

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  7. I love what you're doing. I used to read dictionaries quite a lot, especially bilingual ones: French/English, German/English - the most exciting one was German/French. My head was utterly stuffed with words and it felt fantastic. It helps a lot when you're watching movies subtitled in two languages (although I don't recommend as creates enormous headache).

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    1. Thanks Colleen - I love bilingual dictionaries too. I speak Spanish and am currently learning Romanian and they're great fun. I don't speak German, but I *love* the sound of it and its words. Do feel free to join in on the daily words I post - it's always great to meet another word lover.

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  8. Hello Eddie ~

    If you think you are weird ~ then I would have to consider myself weird as well.
    Whenever I attend a book-sale, the most desired section is ... dictionaries ... :o)
    Hardly ever do I come home without having bought yet another one.
    Just like you, I do love words ... and ... dictionaries! Often I compare definitions,
    since they can differ quite a bit. Whenever I come across an English word I have
    never before heard, I click on the available dictionary on my apple-computer, or I
    go to Duden ... if I am not quite sure about a word in my own native language.

    Always do I feel good about having learned or conquered a new word :o)

    Oh ~ what would the world be without dictionaries ... ;o)

    Kind regards from Canada,
    Karin

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    1. Hi Karin and welcome to Lexicolatry : o )

      May I first say that I'm really glad you signed your name - I had earlier responded to a comment you left on the word 'backfisch', and I wasn't really sure how to address you: "mmbmbmbmb" didn't seem quite right!

      It's great to meet a fellow a dictionary-doting, word-wondering weirdo. And yes! Comparing definitions from different dictionaries *is* very interesting, and often quite telling of its source culture.

      Do please stay around as I continue my way through the OED, and feel free to comment on any words you like : o )

      Ed

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    2. Thank you Ed for your warm welcome ~

      Be assured, that I will visit frequently. And if you 'permit' ~ I might even come for advice
      when (if) I am not sure, how to use a certain word or phrase ;o)
      Truly remarkable what you have created here! Took the liberty of sharing your site on
      google+ ... so my YouTubeFriends can also have a glimpse of what you do. Hope that's
      okay with you?

      Kind regards,
      Karin

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  10. My tiny contribution to our language.

    Twinglish: a tight imply/infer loop randomly resulting in accurate translation of intent.

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