Tag Archive | dictionaries

Confessions of the child of rednecks, or, not all kids had access to the same resources

This first dictionary I ever owned…

I want to talk about a personal sore point. Many times over the years I have made disparaging remarks about things other people did not know which I thought were common knowledge. I realize that I really shouldn’t. Especially because I get my own dander up when people are dismissive of any comments I have made about certain deficiencies in my own education which I am well aware of. One specific phenomenon is that there are words that I encountered in various books I read as a child, but it was many years later before I ever heard another human speak them outloud. I had been able to infer the meaning of the word from the context in which it was used. In my head I pronounced it based on what I thought the spelling implied. But sometimes I was wrong about that.

On more than one occasion when I have explained that (and trust me, I feel super embarrassed when I realize I have reverted to the incorrect pronunciation), someone has pointed out that the pronunciation is available in dictionaries. And that just makes me feel even more embarrassed but also more than a bit angry.

I am obsessed with dictionaries. I own more than five bookshelves of various dictionaries, for instance, and a rather large number of unabridged dictionaries. But here’s the thing: that’s me, as an adult pushing sixty who has had the luck to work in the tech industry for decades and make a decent living. I have access to dictionaries now, yes, but I didn’t always. And I am not, by any means, the only kid for which this is true.

I’ve mentioned before that my father worked in the petroleum industry, one consequence of which is that I attending ten different elementary schools in four different states. My dad’s specific job title throughout my elementary years was “roughneck.” The pay wasn’t great. It was a heavy labor job with no union benefits.

In second grade we moved from a town in central Colorado that had a really well-funded public school system to a town in southwest Nebraska which had a less advanced school system. The first day I got to go to the school library I saw that they had a large unabridged dictionary on a pedestal that was too tall for me to reach it. When I tried to get to it, the librarian stopped me and explained that only kids fourth grade and up were allowed to use that dictionary, because it was printed on very delicate paper that us clumsy second-graders would surely tear if we tried to use it.

I was so incensed that I wasn’t allowed to use the dictionary in the library, that I complained about it for many days after to anyone who would listen. My Sunday School teacher was so moved by my righteous outrage that she found the dictionary pictured up above. When she brought it to me, the spine was gone, but all the pages were there. She told me that this way I would have my own dictionary.

Mom helped me patch the broken spine with masking tape. The dictionary was not as thorough as the unabridged dictionary at the library. There are just a lot fewer words in that dictionary than the other. Also, most words had one simple definition, which means that for some words a lot of the less common meanings of words just weren’t included. Don’t get me wrong, I was ecstatic to have a dictionary of my own. Unfortunately, many of the times I needed to consult it (when I found a word in something I was reading where I couldn’t deduce the meaning from context) the word I was curious about wasn’t in the book.

Mom bought this dictionary at a used bookstore.

A bit over a year (and three towns) later, Mom decided to get her GED. I’ve mentioned before that my parents were only 16 years old when they married. Mom dropped out of school after her junior year, because she was pregnant by then. Anyway, for the GED classes she was taking she needed a dictionary, and she decided that she should have one of her own, rather than swiping her son’s, so she bought that dictionary. For the next many years there were two dictionaries in the house. The one Mom bought wasn’t much better than the one I owned. But sometimes when a word wasn’t in one, it was in the other, so that was an improvement.

I didn’t get access to an unabridged dictionary until the second half of fourth grade. But even then, it was only when I could go to school library. The town we lived in for the next couple of years did not have a public library. So the school library was the only option.

And I know that there are many, many kids who had less access to those sorts of educational resources than I had. And on some level it doesn’t matter that many of us got better access when we are older, some things we learn as kids will occasionally surface when we get older.

So, sometimes our childhood deficiencies continue to bite us in the butt for decades later.

Back to the two dictionaries pictured above. Many years after getting that first dictionary, I carefully removed the horribly deteriorated masking tape and constructed a new spine with acid-free book tape. That’s my handwriting on the spine. Specifically, that is me trying my best to write legibly. Infer from that what you will about how sloppy my penmanship is.

Many, many years later, Mom mentioned that the dictionary she’d bought herself was the only one she owned, so for her next birthday I bought her a much more comprehensive Merriam-Webster dictionary. Some time after that, when we were visiting for a holiday or something, Mom brought out the old dictionary and said she never used it anymore because the newer one was much nicer. She was thinking of getting rid of the old one, but before she did, she wanted to offer it to me. Of course I took it.

I sometimes wonder just how much that incident in second grade when a librarian told me I wasn’t allowed to touch the unabridged dictionary has contributed to my obsession with dictionaries.

Who knows?

Chock-full of meaning, or more adventures in dictionaries

Clck to embiggen.

A discussion about writing advice crossed my social media stream this week. One topic was archaic similes that literate people know the meaning of, but because they refer to practices or objects that are no longer part of daily life, no longer conjure a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. The first example was “hoist with his own petard,” which many people more-or-less understand, but since almost none of the people who recognize it knows that a petard is a small explosive device, and that the word hoist being used here is the past participle meaning to “lift and remove.” So the full meaning of the phrase as Shakespeare first used it is that a person who has tried to set a bomb against another person has instead had it blow up in his own face (and removed them from the situation).

An informal survey I conducted many years ago among acquaintances at a gaming event proved that a substantial number of people were certain that a petard was part of a sailing ship, and so the image they all had was of people being hooked on some sort of winch and raised into the air. One could argue that that is close enough, but it is definitely a different image than the evil bomber who is taken out by his own bomb.

Someone else suggest that the phrase “chock-full” fell into the same category because many people don’t know what a chock is. And… well, it is probably true that a lot of people don’t know what a chock is, but the noun, chock (meaning a block or wedge of wood) didn’t enter the English language until the 1700s, where it derived from a French word meaning a log. Whereas chock-full was an English word more than 400 years before chock, and it has no connection to the noun.

chokkeful Middle English crammed full

The earliest written version is from the year 1400, but there is reason to believe the word is older than that. And it has always meant “crammed full.” Which is kind of amazing, when you think about it. The only thing that etymologists aren’t sure of is whether it is a derivative of the Old German (and Saxon and Old English) word chokke which as a noun originally meant “jaw or cheek” and as a verb meant to grasp a person by the jaw, or if it comes from on Old French word choquier which meant to “collide, strike, or crash.” If the former, than the image our 15th century ancestors was imagining was a mouthful. If the latter, the image was of someone forcing more things into a container than it ought to be able to hold.

Now, if the argument is that one must imagine the exact same physical manifestation of a word for it to be meaningful, I guess you could say people ought not use chock-full, given that some people think it has something to do with chocks. But if that is the standard, than no words can ever be used. Besides, I abide by a slightly different school of thought. Chock-full hasn’t been a simile for at least 600 years. It is simply a word that means “crammed full” and since that meaning has been the same for all that time, well, the only native English speakers who are going to be confused by it are those that are over thinking things.

If chock-full is a word that you use in every day speech, then if it seems to fit in something you’re writing, use it.

The problem with making word choices while writing isn’t whether a specific word would be defined exactly the same by every reader, but whether the word flows naturally in the narrative. For a lot of people, “hoist with his own petard” is an affectation that has been inserted into the narrative to emulate Shakespeare. And every writer goes through a phase where they are trying on styles and phrasings of writers they admire. If you do that, the reader will seee that inauthenticity right away.

So the first rule is: is it a word that you use yourself without having to think about it? If so, it fits your style and is probably okay to use. The second rule is, is the way you use it one of the commonly understood definitions, or it is jargon—is it a specialized meaning of the word that is only understood by members of a particular profession, sub-culture, or clique? Well, then maybe limit its use.

Of course, there is a difference between word choices in the narration than words used in dialogue. Maybe your character fancies themself a Shakespearean hero and is constantly quoting (or misquoting) lines from famous plays. Of course a character like that is going to use the phrase “hoist with his own petard,” and you, the author, will likely have another character ask what it means or correct him when he says it wrong (and I have heard so many people, probably because they think a petard is a winch or similar rather than a bomb, say it “hoist on his own petard”). That works just fine!

There is also the choice of audience. Maybe you intend your story primarily for members of a particular community. Even then, I still point back to rule number one: stick to words you use conversationally yourself. And if you’re not sure, read the whole scene outloud. Any phrase or sentence that trips up your tongue needs to be re-written, because if you can’t say it without getting tongue-tied, it isn’t written in your voice.

Don’t choke on the vocabulary, don’t shove in pretentious phrases, and don’t get cheeky.

Ill humours and untangled threads – more adventures in dictionaries

I’ve been listening to the NPR show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” since, I think, the very first broadcast. And it was while walking home from work one day many years ago, that I first heard a particular use of a word when a listener contestant described herself as a “gruntled postal worker.” She was a mail delivery person, driving a small mail truck around a rural community, and she said he loved her work. That self-description elicted laugher from the panel for a couple of reasons. First, a series of unfortunate workplace violence incidents beginning in the mid-80s in which angry post office employees violently attacked supervisors, co-workers and so forth, the phrase “disgruntled postal worker” and “going postal” had become colloquialisms used in describing workplace violence issues. Second, it sounded like a back-formation of an existing word. Disgruntled describes a state of ill-humor, moody dissatisfaction, or sulky discontent. And since the prefix dis– usually indicates a negation, then removing the syllable ought to reverse the meaning of the word, right?

Just look at that definition of disgruntled: dissatisfaction is the opposite of satisfaction and discontent is the opposite of content. It seems obvious.

But it’s not that simple.

Because discontent and dissatisfaction come to us from Latin and Latin-derived languages. In Latin dis- is, indeed a synonym for “not” or “bad” or “separate.” But disgruntled does not come to English by way of Latin. Disgruntled is based on an Old English word which in turn came from the Old Saxon word grunt meaning literally a low, short, gutteral sound. And the dis- in disgruntled also comes from Old Saxon, where it means “very or a large amount.” The Old English word that I alluded to above is gruntle, which was a verb meaning to make those gutteral sounds–literally to moan and groan. To be gruntled, then, meant to be in a mood or state that causes you to moan and groan with dissatisfaction, while to be disgruntled meant not just a little bit unhappy and cranky, but to be extremely unhappy.

It’s not surprising that modern English speakers aren’t familiar with the Old Saxon prefix, dis– , because digruntled is the only common English word in which that prefix still appears. Nearly every other English word beginning with the letters d i and s Derive from Latin. There are a few rare words we’ve swiped from Dutch and Turkish and the like which begin with those three letters and don’t mean “not-” something.

Disgruntled, then, can be thought of as an orphaned Saxon word—a sort of living fossil in the language, if you will. And there is one other such fossil word hiding in modern English among the dis-es. Distaff, meaning the female branch or side of a family, has also survived intact from Old English. However, the dis– in distaff has almost no relationship to the dis– in disgruntled. Because the Old English distaff didn’t come from Old Saxon, but rather from Middle Low German. In Middle Low German dise meant a bundle of flax. And the disestaff was a specially shaped stick that was used to wind lengths of flax or wool or similar fibers to keep them from tangling until they could be woven or knitted into a cloth or garment.

The rather sexist reason that the English word distaff now refers to the female side of a family or to the female realm is because winding thread or yarn and turning it into garments was considered women’s work. The word isn’t considered completely archaic at this point, but fortunately it isn’t a terrbbly common word, any longer. We could do with a bit less of the dominance of the patriarchy in our language.

Despite my explanation above about the original meaning of gruntle, you will not find me angrily lecturing people for misusing the word. Gruntled is a perfectly servicable colloquialism to refer to a feeling of happiness. And I strongly suspect that the humorous way people tend to use it means that it’s going to stick around for a while. And that’s a good thing. Because if gruntled continues to catch on, that increases the likelihood that the fossil disgruntled will avoid linguistic extinction for a while longer.

And I’ve always had a soft spot for fossils.

That doesn’t mean what it used to — more adventures in dictionaries

“terrific, a [L. terrificus, from terrere, to frightenm and facere, to make.] Dreadful; causing terror; adapted to excite great fear or dread; as a terrific form; a terrific sight.”

Using my self-lighting magnifier with my latest dictionary acquisition, (Click to embiggen)

If you’ve ever known a collector of anything one thing you learn is the collector seldom has a concept of the word “enough.” No matter how many trading cards or figurines or fossils or whatever it is the collector fancies they already own, if they find one that they don’t already have in good condition at a reasonable price, they’re all over it. And my penchant for collecting dictionaries is no exception. While other people were watching the Super Bowl last Sunday, my husband and I were hitting a few thrift stores. And guess what I found?

Now the sad part is that we were doing this specifically because we’re both working on hall costumes for NorWesCon (at the end of March). My husband actually found things for one of his costumes, but what did I find? Well, I found a copy of the 1951 edition of the World Publishing Company’s New Twentieth Century Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. Yes, that whole thing was the official title. This was one of the dictionaries produced after the legal ruling that found the Merriam-Webster Company could not prevent other companies from using Noah Webster’s name on their dictionaries even though they weren’t actually using Webster’s original dictionaries nor operating under the auspices of the agreement made between Mr. Webster’s estate and George and Charles Merriam back in 1843.

Click to embiggen

The World Publishing Company only produced this edition, a two-volume version, and a slightly revised 1953 edition before selling out to Macmillan Publishing USA. This dictionary, while being labeled “unabridged” and spanning approximately 2300 pages isn’t exactly one of the most highly regarded, given that a third of that page count is actually a desk encyclopedia, and the editorial staff hadn’t been working on it for as long as some of the more storied dictionaries. Which isn’t to say that it’s a poorly made dictionary.

But its primary claim to fame is that the editorial staff for this edition was headed up by Professor Harold Whitehall, of the University of Indiana. Whitehall was an interesting choice to edit an American dictionary because Whitehall was British. Whitehall was born in 1905 in Ramsbottom, Lancashire, England. He got his first degree at Nottingham University, studied for a while after at London University, before coming to the U.S. where he obtained is Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He taught at the University of Iowa, at the University of Wisconsin, and Queen’s College New York, before settling at the University of Indiana where he spent the rest of his academic career. While he was at Michigan, he served as assistant editor of a Dictionary of Middle English (the English spoken during the 12th, 13th, and 14th Centuries), which was probably why he was recruited by the World Publishing Company.

And why it’s important that Whitehall worked on this dictionary is, that while the number of words and depth of the definitions weren’t on a par with other unabridged dictionaries of the time, the New Twentieth Century Webster’s Dictionary had the most thorough etymologies of any America-published dictionaries published up to that date. Because linguistics—specifically the history and derivation of our language—was Whitehall’s passion.

When Macmillan acquired most of the World Publishing Company, they already had a staff of dictionary editors, but they asked Whitehall to stay on, created the post of Linguistics Editor for him, and they released several more editions of this dictionary for subsequent years, before the company was acquired by another publisher in 1998, who sold off the reference division to yet another company in 1999 and so on. Whitehall stopped working for them some time before 1960, though he continued to teach English and Linguistics at the University of Indiana until his death in 1986.

In honor of my finally acquiring my own copy of this dictionary famous for bringing a new level of etymological rigor to American dictionaries, this is a perfect time to talk about why understanding when your dictionary was created and how it is being maintained is important. Don’t assume that just because there are lots of free dictionaries available on the internet that anyone started with a high quality source or experts are keeping it up to date. And this is important because the language is a living thing that changes over time.

For instance, terrific used to mean terrifying (terrific is to terror as horrific is to horror, as a friend so eloquently put it). As the 1951 edition puts it (shown in the picture above I took the other night):

ter-rif’ic, a [L. terrificus, from terrere, to frighten and facere, to make.] Dreadful; causing terror; adapted to excite great fear or dread; as a terrific form; a terrific sight.”

How did the word come to mean the opposite? Simple, the sarcastic or ironic use became far more common than the original meaning. People used it sarcastically to refer to something that wasn’t horrifying at all—quite the opposite—and people hearing that usage while not being familiar with the word themselves inferred its meaning from context. And soon everyone was using terrific as a synonym for “wonderful” instead of “horrible.”

Notice from the image above, there is no other definition given. If we jump ahead to one of my 1987 dictionaries, for instance, we find the primary definition being “causing great fear or terror”, the second as “remarkable or severe” and only the third definition, marked informal is “very good or wonderful.” Whereas my 2001 Oxford New American Dictionary lists the “causing terror” definition as archaic, but even then, the primary definition is “of great size, amount or intensity,” and the second sense of “extremely good or excellent” is still listed as informal. Although that may be because the editorial board of the Oxfords include a lot of British people. Most of my American published dictionaries from the late 90s on list something along the lines of “extraordinarily good” as the primary definition.

But this is part of the reason I am obsessed with dictionaries and how they are made. I have watched the meanings of some words change in my lifetime. It’s important to know this happens, particularly if you ever read books or stories written many years ago.

Some words don’t mean what they used to. That’s not a bad thing, but it can cause some confusion and consternation from time to time. Did I mention, that while consternation now means “feelings of anxiety or dismay” that is once used to mean “terrified”?

Normal is overrated — more adventures in dictionaries

Bugs Bunny making a silly face with the words “I've done a lot of things over the years, but acting normal isn't one of them.”

“I’ve done a lot of things over the years, but acting normal isn’t one of them.”

The first time I experienced mental health therapy was in middle school, after I was injured by a bully severely enough that the school nurse said I needed to be taken to the hospital. Later, in the infinite wisdom of a typical school administrator, I, the perennial victim of bullying, was threatened with expulsion if I didn’t go to counseling and if the counselor did not report I was making progress. They never said progress toward what, but it became clear as the twice-monthly went on through the rest of that school year and the next, that what she was trying to do was teach me to act like a normal boy. I don’t think she ever used the phrase “normal” to my face, but she certainly did when explaining things to my parents.

There were many reasons why I didn’t behave like a “normal” boy. And usually when I have written about this topic before I have focused on how as a queer kid I was gender non-conforming. But that wasn’t the only problem. There are queer kids who did a better job than I ever did of blending in. And there are lots of not-queer kids who were bullied for being different in other ways. I had other strikes against me.

One of my relatives, for instance, described me as “a lost adult trapped in a child’s body” when referring to my childhood. One reason several people perceived me in that way as a child is because my intelligence was several standard deviations above average. That had two very distinct effects on my behavior. One was that I often understood and knew things people didn’t expect a child to know, but the other was that there were very few of the kids my age that I got along with, so I kept forming close relationships with adults. And that increased the gap between myself and most of the kids my age.

Now, the word “normal” derives from the Latin normalis, which means made according to a right-angle or square. But ask most people what normal means and you’ll probably get something close to what Oxford calls sense 3: “Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. Also, physically or mentally sound, healthy.” Interestingly, that usage of the word in English only came about in the early 1800s. When in first came into the language, in the late 1400s, it referred exclusively to a regular verb. Then in the mid 1600s its meaning expanded to refer “Right-angled, standing at right angles; perpendicular.” Which is how it entered the lexicography of mathematics.

I was interested in science for as long as I can remember. We can blame my mom the science fiction fan for that. When I was a baby, she literally read aloud whichever Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or similar book she had checked out from the library. And mathematics is something I fell in love with early in school. We moved around a lot because of my dad’s job in the petroleum industry, but as luck would have it, the school district where I attended first grade and a portion of second was one that won awards for excellence year after year. They gave me a great start.

For instance, the explanation my second grade teacher in Fort Collins had given me of the Distributive Property, was how I got labeled a freak on the first day (three schools later) that I attended school in Cheyenne Wells. It was late spring in Third Grade when we moved to Cheyenne Wells, and they were just getting to things like the Distributive Property of Multiplication. The teacher tried to explain it to class, but her explanation wasn’t very good. And during the period when we were supposed to be going through a worksheet and helping each other with the problems, the teacher overheard me explaining the the kid next to me how it works, so she brought me to the front of the room and made me explain it to the whole class. And then they all knew I was a Math Freak, a Brain, and the Teachers new Pet.

It wasn’t just the first school, of course, it was also the fact that I loved to read so much, that whenever I was given a new set of books at school, I would read them all the way to the end on my own as soon as I could. And half the time that I spent in the library I was tracking down non-fiction books about topics that came up in the science fiction, mystery, and adventure books that I loved. And most of the time throughout grade school and middle school, I would rather sit in a corner and read than run around the playground or do other things the rest of the kids were doing any time we were turned loose.

That always failed to endear me to the other kids.

Despite the fact that at heart I was an introvert, I also loved explaining things to people. Which often came across as me being a show off or know it all.

As an adult, I work in a technology field writing and designing documentation and help systems explaining how systems work. So all of those characteristics eventually became useful, eventually.

But there was no amount of counseling from that therapist—or mentoring from my middle school wrestling coach (and pre-algebra teacher!), or the other attempts by specific teachers who tried to take me under their wing to steer me through the shoals of bullying—that would make a smart, queer, introverted, book- and science-loving, know-it-all pass for normal in a typical primary or secondary school.

Which isn’t a slam on the other kids, but rather the way we herd children together by age and leave them to their own devices to work out social dynamics. The theory is that we learn to get along with diverse people that way, but the system creates an artificial social environment that encourages some of our worst behaviors.

I survived. I not only came out of the system free of bitterness and resentment, I often find myself in the position of defending public schools from the distorted statistics some people wave around trying to prove other options are better (spoiler alert: the statistics are on traditional public school’s favor). And when it comes to bullying, private schools and charter schools don’t handle those situations one iota better. In fact, for marginalized kids, they are much, much worse, statistically.

But I digress.

Learning to get along is a worthwhile goal. Conformity and trying to pretend you’re something you’re not, are toxic and destructive. I wish we were better at teaching the former, rather than enforcing the latter.

It means what it means and exactly the opposite at the same time—more adventures in dictionaries

“Bugs Bunny accidentally transformed the word <em>nimrod</em> into a synonym for <em>idiot</em> because nobody got a joke where he sarcastically compared Elmer Fudd to the Biblical figure Nimrod, a mighty hunter.” “Etymology is ridiculous and terrifying sometimes.”

“Bugs Bunny accidentally transformed the word nimrod into a synonym for idiot because nobody got a joke where he sarcastically compared Elmer Fudd to the Biblical figure Nimrod, a mighty hunter.” “Etymology is ridiculous and terrifying sometimes.”

I remember very clearly watching an old Bugs Bunny cartoon on TV when I was a kid and Bugs Bunny referred to Elmer Fudd very disparagingly as a Nimrod. And I didn’t know what it meant. At that time, my family didn’t yet own either an encyclopedia set nor a dictionary, which means it was before 1970. So when I asked Mom what it meant, she wasn’t sure. So I had to wait until I could go to the school library and look it up in the dictionary where it was defined as “noun, 1 Grandson of Ham, described in Genesis as a mighty hunter 2 a hunter.” Which didn’t seem very insulting, and clearly Bugs meant it as an insult, right? It took me several minutes of thinking about it before I realized that Bugs Bunny was being sarcastic. It was describing someone who he thought was an incompetent hunter by alluding to a Biblical figure who had been a good hunter.

In subsequent years I started hearing the word being used pejoratively on the playground (this would be late sixties and through the seventies), and clearly the word meant either “idiot” or “dork” or “jerk.” By middle school the insult began to be a bit more sexual, but still definitely an insult, sort of a combination of “c*cksucker” and “wanker.”

Many lexicographers express skepticism that Bugs Bunny is to blame for the shift in the meaning of nimrod, but then fail to offer a compelling alternative explanation. Several of them trot out a line of dialogue from the obscure 1933 play, The Great Magoo. The word nimrod is clearly used as an insult, but it is specifically a reference to a man who had fallen in love with the showgirl, and that he’s another in a long line of nimrods pursuing her. The problem is that while it is being used as an insult, clearly the insult is still a reference to Nimrod the Mighty Hunter—in this case someone who sees this woman as a prize to be captured.

And since all of the lexicographers agree that the “synonym of idiot” meaning became common in the early 60s, it’s a little difficult to believe a play that flopped 30 years earlier was the source.

Another example that is trotted out is a series of humorous stories published in a British periodical in the late 19th Century which ran under the pseudnym of Nimrod. Each story is told in the first person and recounts another humorous misadventure while attempting to participate in a fox hunt. But that’s even harder to believe that the 1933 play, first, because of the longer period of time but also because all the dictionaries agree that the “synonym of idiot” meaning is chiefly a U.S. usage.

I’ve seen at least one person simply express skepticism that a single line of dialogue from a single short film could have the effect. I have several responses to that. First, it is three different Bugs Bunny cartoons in which the insult occurs (amusingly enough, only one of them is it used to describe Elmer Fudd, the other two times are both used against Yosemite Sam). The other thing is that from the late fifties through the seventies, Bugs Bunny was everywhere.

In 1956 Warner Brothers licensed the rights to all of their Looney Tunes cartons made up until mid-July 1948 to Associated Artists Productions. A.A.P. began syndicating them to local stations, and by 1958 were able to claim that the highest rated local shows in every metropolitan market were those that included at least some cartoons. No one had cable, and people could only get three to five local stations over the air, so your choices for entertainment were limited. And the syndication deals weren’t exclusive, so I remember that at one point in my elementary school years, where there was one show on one channel that ran every weekday morning around the time we were getting ready for school that included several Looney Tunes cartoons, plus a half hour show that ran every weekday at 4:30 on another channel that was all Looney Tunes cartoons, and another half hour of Looney Tunes that ran on a third channel every weekday at 5:30.

In addition, in 1960 Warner Brothers started producing and selling to various networks a program that combined cartoons made from mid-July 1948 on. First as a primetime weekly Bugs Bunny Show, then it moved to Saturday mornings. As I said, for a while, Bugs Bunny was everywhere.

According to at least one dictionary specializing in slang, the “synonym of idiot” meaning of nimrod was used prevalently by U.S. teens and pre-teens in the 70s and 80s. All of us kids watching Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 60s and 70s could account for the new meaning of the word arising in our age group quite nicely at that time. Whereas the obscure 1933 play and the humorous 19th Century British magazine origins just don’t make any sense as an origin for American schoolyard slang in the 70s, do they?

Finally, another reason to believe the fault lies with misunderstanding a sarcastic usage of the word is because it has happened in English many times. For example, terrific used to mean terrifying (terrific is to terror as horrific is to horror, as a friend so eloquently put it). How did terrific come to mean the opposite? Simple, the sarcastic or ironic use became far more common than the original meaning. Sometimes language just takes a left turn at Albuquerque, eh, Doc?

Seriously, it’s all Greek — more adventures in dictionaries

“...involving, related to, or characterized by a sexual propensity for one's own sex; of or involving sexual activity with a member of one's own sex, or between individuals of the same sex.”

“…involving, related to, or characterized by a sexual propensity for one’s own sex; of or involving sexual activity with a member of one’s own sex, or between individuals of the same sex.” (Click to embiggen; I got a new self-lighting magnifier for my Compact Oxford—isn’t it neat?)

It happened after a committee meeting for the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus when we had devolved to chatting. I don’t remember exactly what was being discussed, but one of the women got upset when I used the word “gay” to refer to the entire community. “That excludes women,” she said, icily. I apologized and said I didn’t mean to do that, it was just fewer syllables and sometimes I just wished there were a shorter way to refer to everyone, and homosexual is so clinical. She interrupted, leaning in and getting much angrier. “Another word for men! Geeze, how can you do that?” When I protested that it was a clinical term originally coined to refer to both men and women she really got upset, insisting, “Homo means man! Yeah, yeah, it’s like mankind means everyone because men think they’re all the matters!”

At this point I was no longer feeling defensive, I was feeling angry. So I explained that while if one were speaking Latin, “homo” meant man, but the word wasn’t built from Latin roots, it was from Greek roots, and in Greek, homo means “the same” which is why the doctor who first coined the term picked it, as he had written about extensively that he was describing people who were attracted to and formed attachment to member of the same sex, in contrast to hetero which is greek for “other or different.” So “heterosexual” meant someone attracted to the other sex, while “homosexual” meant someone attracted to the same sex. Also, the doctor in question was himself non-heterosexual and spent much of his life trying to prove that homosexuality was not a mental illness.

Suffice it to say that she did not appreciate my lecture.

That was not the last time I got into that argument, by any means.

Other times when I’ve pointed out the difference between the Greek root and the Latin word which sounds the same, people have countered that “a lot of people think it means male!” To which I replied that a many people think the world is flat, but I’m not going to stop using the word “world” because some people are ignorant.

Don’t get me wrong—I understand that perception is important, but here’s the thing: if I point to a crowded room full of people of many different genders and say “they’re all homosexual” not one English speaking person in the whole world is going to think I’m only referring to the men. No one will be confused. Yes, a few of the women in the crowd may raise the same incorrect objection as the person in my first paragraph, and some bisexual or pansexual people in the crowd will make an equally incorrect objection (there is no portion of homosexual that means exclusively with one’s own gender, just that there is a propensity toward one’s own gender). I will grant that if there are any asexual people in the crowd they will have, linguistically, a valid bone to pick with my sweeping generalization.

The thing is, I don’t happen to like using the word homosexual because it sounds so clinical, and despite the word being coined by a pro-homo doctor, originally, it was quickly adopted by the parts of the medical establishment who insisted we were mentally ill or depraved. But I also don’t like using it to refer to the community because no matter how you slice it, it does exclude asexuals, as well as trans people who are also straight.

If I’m in a situation where queer isn’t accepted, I will sometimes punt to “non-heterosexual,” but that has the problem of defining us by what we aren’t, rather than what we are.

There are people who object to the term because it places emphasis on sex, while we often argue that the real issue is love. I have some small amount of sympathy for that line of reasoning, though it often digresses into rather sex-negative prudery. And while there is a difference between love and sex, for most non-asexuals, the two things are tangled together pretty tightly. I am attracted to other men. The initial attraction is, to be honest, about hormones and desire. For me, at least, love is a choice I make as I get to know a person. Yes, there are feelings and admiration and so forth, but I have feelings for lots of people who I don’t choose to commit myself to. I admire lots of people I don’t choose to commit myself to.

This attempt to separate the sex from sexual orientation also ignores another important reality: heterosexual relationships are just as much about sex as queer relationships are. Don’t believe me? What were the only legal arguments that anti-gay people had left by the time the case had reached the U.S. Supreme Court: that marriage was exclusively about reproduction, and that heterosexual people would never make the lifelong commitments necessary to raise the resultant children is legal marriage wasn’t reserved for straights (no, that argument makes no sense, and yes, that’s really what they wrote in their legal briefs!). Yes, the people who claim that we’re the perverts obsessed with sex argued that it was wrong to define marriage as a loving relationship geared toward mutual support (yes, that was also in their legal brief).

But I’ve digressed enough. The word “homosexual” does not simply refer to men, it comes from the Greek word homo meaning “the same.” Neither does the word refer to any exclusivity in that sexual orientation. Also, although hetero means “other or different,” neither heterosexual or homosexual linguistically imply only two genders. Heterosexual literally means sexual activity with someone of a different sex, not the opposite sex. So not only isn’t the word sexist, it also doesn’t deny the existence of genderfluid or intersex or third sex people.

And now you know!

The meaning of everything—more adventures in dictionaries

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn't 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn’t 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

I’ve mentioned many times that my childhood was spread over ten elementary schools in four different states thanks to my dad’s employment in the petroleum industry. Those ten schools varied a lot, but one thing all of them had in common was a library; and one of the things each of those libraries had in common was a big dictionary. They didn’t all have the exact same dictionary, but there was always at least one large hardbound dictionary, frequently on display on a stand or lectern.

I distinctly remember the library at the elementary school in Kimball, Nebraska keeping its dictionary on a pedestal that was too tall for me to reach the book, and it had a sign that said it was off-limits to anyone below fourth grade. When I asked why, I was told that it was too heavy for us smaller kids to lift, that it was printed on extremely thin paper which was easily torn, and besides, us lower grade kids couldn’t really understand it. I argued, of course, which got me nowhere. In fact, a note about my bad attitude was sent home to my parents. Surprisingly, my dad wasn’t angry at me about that, and seemed to actually take my side (though he didn’t go so far as to do anything about it).

I was apparently so offended at the notion that I, as a second-grader, couldn’t understand a dictionary, that I ranted about it at Sunday School. Which eventually led the wife of the pastor at the church we were attending to give me a dictionary of my own. It was an old desk dictionary whose cover was held on by a lot of layers of black book tape, but it was mine. My parents didn’t have a dictionary in the house before then (though over the next few years we acquired a couple more).

But to get back to those big dictionaries in the library, all of them said “Webster’s” on the cover, often in gold printing. A large number of them were probably various printings of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary second edition. But because the original dictionaries edited by Noah Webster had fallen into the public domain by 1889, other publishers have been using the name in the title of their dictionaries. So some of them were probably from other publishers.

I was in the fifth grade when I learned the latter fact: that just because a dictionary’s cover said “Webster’s” didn’t mean it actually was Webster’s. But at the same time I also learned about the Oxford English Dictionary. The teacher in question was deeply enamored with the OED, having started using it at libraries while he was studying in the United Kingdom, and hoped someday to own his own copy. He told us that the dictionar was so big it couldn’t be published in one book, but was split into multiple volumes, like an encyclopedia, and cost thousands of dollars. I remember specifically him explaining that it was about 30 volumes.

I learned later that the last bit was completely wrong. At the time this teacher was studying abroad, the second edition of the OED hadn’t yet been printed. The second edition is 20 volumes, whereas the first was originally ten volumes, with only three supplemental volumes having been published by the time the teacher was back in the U.S. and teaching us in the tiny town of Roosevelt, Utah. I don’t know if he truly didn’t remember how many volumes it was (which suggests that he may have used it at a library only once or twice), or if he was exaggerating for effect (giving this teacher’s personality, either was likely), but he was incorrect about the number of volumes.

Still the image of thirteen big hardback books being necessary to contain all the text of a dictionary was pretty magical. And ever since I’d learned of its existence, I too, dreamed of a day when I would have a copy of the OED of my own. It is definitely a dream, because the retail price of the full twenty volume set is usually listed at $1295 – though you can usually find it being offered at just under a thousand. I found a set in a used bookstore once… locked up in a glass case and being offered for even more than that. It wasn’t the 20-volume second edition (first published in 1989) but the old 10 volume set from 1928.

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set)

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set (me included for scale).

Given those prices (and once you learn how much work goes into producing a high quality dictionary {many years, dozens of editors, hundreds of readers scouring old books}, you’ll understand why the price tag is so high), I had to content myself with various abridged versions for several years. Until my husband surprised me on one birthday with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. The Compact Oxford is a very clever book: it contains the full text of the twenty volume dictionary in a single book. They do that by printing on each page of this oversized book tiny images of pages of the dictionary—nine pages of the large dictionary on each page of the Compact. The resulting text is so small that you need a strong magnifier to read the text. So it’s a little weird… but also very cool. At least in a geeky way.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

I’d heard about the Compact Oxford long before I’d seen one. Sometime in the early 90s a co-worker mentioned that there was a one-volume version that they sold with a magnifying glass, but that’s all the details I had at the time. I didn’t realize that they were publishing a bunch of miniature images of full pages, nor did I understand just how tiny the type really was. I had been been quite happy with my copy of The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: American Edition because it is a big, hefty dictionary, almost the size of some of my other unabridged dictionaries, and it had those painstaking word histories that the Oxford is famous for. Then one birthday my husband hauls out a giant present and sets it in front of me. I thought it was a computer of something at first, until I tried to lift it. It was way too heavy for the size. Under the wrapping paper as a big box with the words “The Compact Oxford Dictionary” and “Includes Magnifier.” I was speechless. He was grinning ear-to-ear, of course. It came with more than a magnifier (and a velvet bag to keep the magnifier in). There is a secondary book with instructions on how to use the big book, a protective holder that the two books can slide into—you can put the holder on the shelf, read the spine of the dictionary, and tilt it out easily enough. The holder is substantial enough that even on a shelf with a whole bunch of equally ginormous books (such as six other unabridged dictionaries from other publishers) and it will hold the space open for the book. Which I realized is most useful when you got to put the book back.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Being the kind of nerdy collector I am, getting this book has kicked off another obsession: trying to find the perfect magnifier. A regular magnifying glass that you might pick up for home use only magnifies about 2x or 3x, and that’s just not enough to read the tiny print. The one that came with the book is a 4x magnifier, which is adequate. In the years since I got the dictionary, I’ve found a couple of 5x that work better, though sometimes getting the light right is tricky. There have been many times I’ve slid the magnifier around with one hand while shining a flashlight with the other, finding the perfect angle to light up the words without creating a glare on the part I’m trying to read. It works best with a table big enough that you can lay the dictionary flat while you’re reading.

I’m more than occasionally asked by people why I need more than one dictionary–often with the admonishment, “You know, you can look words up online.” The free online dictionaries give you a fraction of the information about each word that even a $30 collegiate dictionary will provide, is the short answer. And most don’t have the word histories—telling you what year the first use of a particular meaning of the word appeared in print. There is also something to be learned by comparing the definitions in different dictionaries. Which people who aren’t word nerds don’t understand. Then, of course, for some of my dictionaries, there’s that Old Book smell. And you just can’t get that from an online reference.

It is true that more often I look things up in the electronic Shorter Oxford that I bought for both my Mac and iPad/iPhone, simply because it’s more convenient, and I’m usually not needing all of the extra information. (And the purchased app contains more information that the free online sources!)

But the real reason that someone who will suggest looking things up online instead of cracking open a dictionary will never understand is that the dictionaries aren’t just to “look it up” and go. Books have always been magical portals for me. They take me to far away places, or fabulous worlds, or just the mind and heart of another person. That’s true of both fiction and non-fiction. Dictionaries and encyclopedias aren’t just references to me. I love to read them. I love to browse from entry to entry, going down metaphorical rabbit holes as, while I’m reading about one word, a reference is made to a derivation of another word, or a different word that shares a similar root (I love the phrase some dictionaries use, “more at xxxx”!), and going off to read that, which leads to another, and another…

The whole world is contained in a good dictionary. Not just language and meaning, but history and culture (yes, the good and the bad). Finding all of that isn’t something you get just be reading an entry or two. You have to wander and browse and get lost among the words.

It’s an adventure!


I stole the title of this blog post from the very excellent book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. It’s a wonderful read about the decades-long obsession of many people to create the definitive English dictionary. You should also check out his related book, Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. They’re both great!

If you want a good, but affordable version of the Oxford Dictionary (technically small enough to fit in a pocket), it can be had: The Oxford Color Dictionary. It’s not just a dictionary about colors; they put the word color in the title because all of the main headings in the book are printed in a nice blue, which isn’t just meant to make it pretty. As I said it is technically a pocket dictionary. The pages are very small and the font is smallish. They use of color for the words and black text for the definitions, etymologies, et al. It really makes it easy to find the words you want. And it’s cheap! There’s also a companion Color Thesaurus.

Odd, strange, eccentric — more adventures in dictionaries

“queer - a homosexual...” Looking up the definition in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary requires using a magnifier.

“queer – a homosexual…” Looking up the definition in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary requires using a magnifier.

Twenty-five years ago I was dramatically confronted with the hypocritical nature of my feelings about the word “queer.” My coming out process had been long and convoluted. This particular incident (which I’ve written about previously) happened after I had separated from my wife and begun the process of getting a divorce. Getting to the point of admitting to myself that I definitely wasn’t bi hadn’t been pleasant, and I felt that the ordeal required some sort of rite of passage. So when a friend mentioned that she was going to participate in a National Coming Out Day march, which was going to start from a location near my then-workplace, it seemed a perfect fit. It was only after arriving that I found out the event was sponsored by Queer Nation. Queer Nation was controversial within the LGBTQ+ community at the time for both their radical attitude but mostly (among the LGBT people I knew at the time) just for insisting on using the word “queer.”

The argument against the word was that it had been used as an insult against children who failed to fully conform to the ideal for their assigned gender, resulting in many adults in the LGBTQ+ community to experience great pain when hearing the word. I understood that argument, though I had found myself at the receiving end of a lot of vitriol from within the community if I happened to use the word “gay” as an umbrella term, because it left out lesbians. Similarly, I had also been yelled at from using the term “lesbian and gay” because it excluded bisexual people. And the arguments and screaming fits over the word “homosexual” are so convoluted (and intimately tied to the etymology of the word) that they deserve a separate blog post.

So I had found myself, as an active member of a couple of non-profit organizations related to the LGBTQ+ community, constantly trying to say the full initialism in every sentence.

Some gay friends who really disliked Queer Nation saw me marching up the street behind the Queer Nation banner that day (we were actually doing the Queer Hokey Pokey when we passed in front of the bar where a bunch of my friends had met for other reasons). And I got a lot of grief later from them. Some of them just teased me about it, but some were a bit more upset. While I was trying to explain why I wasn’t embarrassed about marching with Queer Nation nor did I regret it, one friend got in my face pretty angrily about it. And thus I found myself retorting, “I am going to call myself Queer if I want to, and fuck you if you don’t like it!”

My feelings about the word shifted during that argument.

Because I realized the argument has a big flaw. Yes, I was bullied as a kid with the word “queer,” but I was also bullied just as viciously with the word “gay.” And the people who argued most vehemently 25 years ago that queer was completely unacceptable, just as emphatically insisted that I should proudly call myself gay. Similarly, I know many women who were bullied during childhood and beyond with the word “lesbian” and derivatives of the word, yet now they’re supposed to proudly call themselves that word, and we’re supposed to call them that rather than use “queer.”

According to several of my dictionaries, in the last two hundred years queer has gone from an adjective meaning “strange, peculiar, or eccentric” to a verb meaning “to spoil or ruin” to an adjective meaning “of or related to homosexuality” to a noun meaning “a homosexual man” to a both a noun and an adjective: “a non-heterosexul person” or something “related to non-heterosexuality.”

Words change. Queer may be derived from the Old High German twerh which was an adjective describing something that was “oblique or not at a right angle.” In other words, not straight. One can see how describing something that was physically at an odd angle would come to metaphorically refer to something that was odd or peculiar in other ways.

My dictionaries that cite the first use of a each particular sense of a word by date indicate that the word was not used as an adjective referring to homosexuality until 1922, and then the noun usage for a homosexual man came 1935. Yet an unabridged dictionary I have that was published in 1957 lists only the definition, “odd, strange, eccentric.”

I see people who are too young to really remember the heyday of Queer Nation amid the horrors of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s still making the argument that we shouldn’t use the word. They say “some people” are triggered by the word queer, so we shouldn’t use it. What they mean is they have been told by some LGBTQ+ folks my age that they are triggered by the word. I, however, remain extremely skeptical of anyone who claims a single word is a consistent trigger. Triggers are tricky, but in my experience, the people claiming to be triggered by the mere utterance of a single specific word really mean that they dislike the word, not that hearing it gives them flashbacks forcing them to relive horrific experiences. This kind of claim cheapens the very useful meaning of the word “trigger” to describe a phenomenon that some survivors of trauma experience. And I’ve never, ever heard anyone claim to be triggered by the words “gay” or “lesbian” even though those words were used as vicious insults just as often as “queer” was.

“We're here, we're queer, get over it.”

“We’re here, we’re queer, get over it.”

So, I’m not going to try to squeeze the various QUILTBAG initialisms (LGBT, GLBT, LGBTI, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQA ad nauseam — and boy, does it get nauseam!) into every sentence. I’m queer. I’m a queer man who is a member of the queer community. The community includes trans people, bisexual people, pansexual people, asexual people aromantic people, non-heterosexual people of all genders, genderfluid people, two-spirit people, bigendered people, ambigendered people, et cetera, et omnia, et perpetua. No matter how you look at all of those people, if you get us all together, many of us are quite strange, a little odd, or wildly eccentric in wonderful ways. So queer is a word that encompasses us well.

If a specific person asks me not to call them queer, I will make an effort not to use the word to refer to them specifically, but I’m going to go right on calling myself and the community queer. I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m not going to be silenced by anyone.

Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls – more adventures in dictionaries

My copy of Funk & Wagnalls is a 1969 edition.

My copy of Funk & Wagnalls is a 1969 edition.

In 1875 Isaac Kaufmann Funk started a publishing company. Two years later one of his friends from University, Adam Willis Wagnalls, joined the firm as a partner and they renamed the business Funk & Wagnalls Company. For the next 13 years they published mostly religious books, but switched to reference after the success of their The Standard Dictionary of English in 1894. This eventually led in 1912 to the publishing Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia.

Isaac Funk did not like the conventions of other dictionaries at the time, espousing his editorial philosophy in four principles:

  • the definitions should be ordered according to current usage, rather than historical meaning
  • etymologies (word origin and/or derivation) should come after the definition, rather than before
  • there should be one alphabetic list of all words, rather than the book being divided into separate sections of geographical, mythical, biblical, and biographical terms
  • all entries that aren’t proper nouns should be published in all lowercase

Funk also had a passion for accurate phonetics.

They published an updated and expanded two-volume version of the dictionary, called the New Standard Unabridged Dictionary in 1913, which they continued to update with new editions until 1943. The Funk and Wagnalls Student’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language was first published in 1920, then Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary (another two-volume set) from 1946. Not to mention various specialty dictionaries.

They became a household name (as it were) when in 1953, in a deal with Unicorn Press, the encyclopedias started being sold in grocery stores. Not the entire set at once, mind you. No, each week a new volume became available. Volume one sold for 99-cents and subsequent volumes where $2.99 a piece. If you remember to go to your local supermarket every week, in just four or five months you could have the entire encyclopedia. The encyclopedias continued to be sold that way until some time in the 1970s.

But what really put Funk & Wagnalls on the pop culture map were some kings of television comedy in the 1960s. Johnny Carson appears to have been the first person, on his nightly Tonight Show to occassionally use the name of either the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia or dictionary in various jokes where he would allude to the f-word or other sexual matters without getting in trouble with the network censors. But things really took off when it became a running gag on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The catch phrase, “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls” was a running joke, as well as other references to the publisher’s awkward to pronounce name to allude to sexual topics.

There is also the much repeated story the Jerry Garcia got the idea to rename his band, The Warlocks, as the Grateful Dead, because he found the phrase while thumbing through a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary while smoking dope with a bunch of friends. For a long time Garcia’s story was considered a misremembering, as no one could find an entry for grateful dead in the editions of Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionaries. Finally, someone found a copy of The Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition whose editorial board had included the chief editor of the Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. The 1955 Britannica World Language edition included a number of terms from folklore and mythology that don’t appear in any other edition of Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionaries.

I think I first saw the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia during one of the grocery store promotions, though I also remember the two-volume dictionary set being owned by my paternal grandparents. Funk & Wagnalls never became as famous (nor was considered as definitive) as the Merriam-Websters or Oxford dictionaries, but they were good reference books. And the idea first popularlized by Isaac Funk that the dictionary should focus first on current usage, was eventually adopted by more famous dictionaries. That isn’t a bad legacy.

And if you don’t know what I mean by legacy, well, you can look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls!

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