Artistic license

Certified Dictionary Thumper t-shirt.

A close up of the t-shirt.

Recently a couple of different friends sent me a link to that day’s Shirt-Woot. A t-shirt with a dictionary joke. Of course it’s the perfect thing for Gene.

It is rare to find a t-shirt with a dictionary joke, so of course I ordered it. But I commented to one of the friends who had sent me the link that there was one problem. There is no way that the dictionary pictured is unabridged. Look at how easily the person is holding it with only one hand. It would need to be a fairly thin dictionary to be held that way.

Seriously, look at the picture on the t-shirt. He’s not even using all four fingers! The pinkie, at least, is curled under.

Trying to hold the dictionary

Trying to hold it one-handed

I own four unabridged dictionaries. I got out the smallest of them, and tried to hold it as they are in the picture. I can hold it with one hand for a short time, but notice that I have to cup my hand under it, to support all the weight. Three fingers are on the front, but the pinkie is still helping, by stabilizing the dictionary’s weight. You can’t tell in the picture, but it was hard to hold it still, because it’s too heavy and awkward.

The friend thought I was being silly to point this out. And it is a silly t-shirt, which I was delighted to order. I’m going to wear it and let people laugh at the joke. And it’s true, it would be extremely painful to be literally thumped with a hardback book the size of one of these unabridged dictionaries.

Labeling myself a dictionary thumper is not inaccurate. I can be pedantic about the meanings and usage of words. I also get that way about syntax, which would make me more of a style guide thumper, but that joke wouldn’t work as well. People know what a dictionary is, but a style guide, not so much.

I’m nowhere near as pedantic about grammar as people expect. And I’m not pedantic about words in the way that people expect, either. Being a technical writer by profession for over two decades, I can’t begin to count how many times co-workers and other colleagues have come to me with questions about spelling and usage that fall on the fringes of what I think the heart of language is. See, folks think of grammar and usage in very stiff and absolute terms. They believe that there is always one and only one correct way to use a specific word. I’ve always assumed this comes from having been admonished in school for doing something incorrectly, so that they think of grammar as a long list of prohibitions: “Thou shalt not dangle thy participles” and so forth.

Holding the dictionary two-handed

It really takes two hands.

But there are no official lists of rules handed down from on high. Language has rules that have evolved as we’ve used it. Word meanings change over time. New social, cultural, and technological situations require new ways of describing or discussing what’s going on. And the beauty of English is that there are thousands of correct ways to construct a sentence to convey a particular meaning. “The man walked down the road” means the same thing as “He walked down the road.” Structurally those things are nearly identical, so they barely count as two ways, but we could also say “He plodded along the street.” Or we can add more details, “The man, stoop-shouldered and sun-burned, trudged beside the highway.” We can turn the structure around, “The crumbling road guided his footsteps to his destination.”

All of those are correct ways of explaining the same basic situation. But they all evoke different moods and details. What makes a particular version of each of those right or wrong is the context, which is not a matter of grammar at all.

Besides saying “Certified Dictionary Thumper,” the t-shirt includes a slogan. “Have you been soteriologically extricated?” Soteriology is a synonym for salvation, deliverance, or liberation. Extricated means to be disentangled, rescued, or released. So the slogan literally means “Have you been rescued in a liberating way?” Or more simply, “Have you been saved saved?” Which is redundant. If I were feeling the need to use the multisyllabic soteriologically, I would have chosen the slogan, “Have you been soteriologically explicated?” Since to explicate is to define something to have had something defined or explained to you.

I strongly suspect that that was the original joke, probably told to the artist by someone else, and somewhere along the line someone misheard. Explicated and extricated sounding quite similar when spoken aloud.

Of course, that just gives me more to explain if someone asks what the shirt says. Which, for someone like me, makes it even more of a win-win.


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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I used to publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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