This Just In!

American Dictionary of the English Language front cover
American Dictionary of the English Language
As many of you know, I collect dictionaries. This facsimile edition of the first American Dictionary of the English Language arrived yesterday and I’ve been enjoying it for hours. Who would have thought there could be 58 definitions of pass?
Portrait of Noah Webster, creator of Dictionary of American English
Noah Webster
According to the preface, Webster was being urged to compile such a volume as early as 1783. He was too busy to even think about it till 1801. The work became ever more ambitious, as you can see from the title page.
American Dictionary of the English Language title page
American Dictionary of the English Language
And the rest is history. Webster’s became almost synonymous with dictionary. He predated the Oxford English Dictionary (1933) by more than a hundred years, and I would claim his scholarship (including historical roots and literary examples) inspired those involved in the OED.
A Dictionary of South African English, title page
A Dictionary of South African English
According to Webster, new locations and new governments require the standardization of modified English. Hence, you can also find dictionaries of Australian English, Indian English, etc.
We are not using Webster’s 1828 dictionary today because—ta da!—language evolves. You heard it here first—unless you read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.
 
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, book cover
The Mother Tongue
 
The evolution of language comes not only from changing political needs, but also from science, art, technological advances, etc. While some of these changes primarily affect relatively narrow bands of society, others are more pervasive. Based on the sheer variety of offerings, I would argue that slang is one of the most changeable aspects of language, both universal and specialized.
 
two dictionaries
Mob Speak and Knickers in a Twist
 
Slang varies by occupation. I have dictionary of carnival slang, for example, as well as several dealing with war.
War Slang by Paul Dickson, cover of dictionary
War Slang
And of course language varies by time period and sub-culture.
Much as I love them, I’m afraid hard-copy dictionaries are becoming extinct. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary claims to be the best available. Given the rapidity of language evolution, online is probably the only way to keep up.
The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide front cover
The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide
What’s your newest dictionary? And why do you still have it?

Loving Language

When my ship comes in. Getting sacked. Raining cats and dogs. Cut the mustard. Knowing the ropes. Our everyday language is full of phrases we use without thinking of how they came to mean what they mean. But let’s cut to the chase here.

 

qpb encyclopedia word phrase origins
We all know that carouse means to party down, probably with a lot of drinking. But do you know how the word came to be? I didn’t until I read it here. “A ancient Roman goblet used by the Germans was made in the shape of a crouching lion, with the belly as the bowl so that a drinker couldn’t put it down until he finished his wine. This led to the German toast Gar aus!, meaning “Completely out!” or “Drink fully!” when drinkers lifted their goblets. Over the centuries Gar aus eventually became garouse and finally carouse in English, meaning to engage in a drunken revel or to drink deeply and frequently.

 

When it comes to books about language, one is never enough for me. In the past I’ve mentioned Bill Bryson‘s Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. There are many other books around about the evolution of language. And while I find them good reads, they really aren’t handy references.

 

brewers dictionary phrase fable
For quick, focused access, look elsewhere. For example, last week I was talking with a friend about how different parts of the country use different words for the same thing, such as bag, sack, or poke. She’d never heard of poke meaning any such thing. That led me to say, “Still common in parts of the south during my childhood. And have you never heard of a pig in a poke?” She hadn’t. And I was unable to explain clearly why that phrase should mean a blind bargain. But Brewer came through for me! “The reference is to a common trick in days gone by of trying to palm off on a greenhorn a cat for a suckling-pig. If he opened the poke or sack he “let the cat out of the bag,” and the trick was disclosed. The French chat en poche (from which the saying may have come) refers to the fact, while our proverb regards the trick. Pocket is diminutive of poke.”

 

The Oxford book gives similar information, but often in less detail. For example, Dutch uncle is defined as “a person giving firm but benevolent advice; the expression is recorded from the mid 19th century, and may imply only that the person concerned is not an actual relative.”
loving language word origins
The Funk book is the opposite. Each entry is quite detailed, and a hair of the dog that bit you gets half a page, beginning “This stems from the ancient medical maxim, Like cures Like—Similia similibus curantur,” and goes on the reference the Iliad and trace the phrase over time.

 

Webster’s Dictionary of Word Origins is much the same, albeit with fewer entries. When it comes to general browsing, these are my favorites!
 
loving language fruitcakes couch potatoes christine ammer
 
Last but not least, let me mention one of the more specialized references. As the cover promises, Ammer’s book is all about food phrases.

 

Delve into the origins of words and phrases. You will find amusement as well as information!

Reasons I Love Dictionaries–And You Should, Too!

Top Ten Tuesday
Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, they provide a prompt for bloggers. This week is a freebie, so I’m writing about Ten Reasons I Love Dictionaries.
I once said that if I were stranded on a desert island with only one book, I’d want it to be the Oxford English Dictionary. Given that this is hypothetical, I’d define the entire 20 volumes as one book. Alas, I have only the condensed version at home.

 oxford-english-dictionary-websters-third-new-international-dictionary

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Lots of Information

The joy of big, encyclopedic dictionaries such as the OED and the Dictionary of American Regional English—dictionaries too big to fit in one volume—is that they give you so much information: multiple meanings, pronunciation, origin(s), where and when it was used. They give you archaic words and highly specialized ones. Often they include examples of the usage, past and/or present. Altogether good reads.
dictionaries-on-shelf

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Specialized Topics

At the other end of the spectrum are dictionaries that cover very narrow or specialized topics, such as a medical dictionary, or dictionaries devoted to lust, wrath, body parts, or texting.

 Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Passions

 There are dictionaries that help one follow one’s passions. Everyone knows about cross-word puzzle dictionaries. Rhyming dictionaries fall into this category as well.
dictionary-rhyming

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Subcultures

I own several dictionaries acquired for writing authentically about specific subcultures.

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Time Periods

Some cover only certain regions of the country or time periods.
dictionary-colonial-american-english

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Regions

Not all English is created equal. You might remember the line sung by Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady:
There even are places where English completely disappears. Why, in America, they haven’t used it for years!
So it’s no surprise that there are various versions of the Oxford English Dictionary, including the Oxford Dictionary of American English. Given the breadth of the British Empire, it’s no wonder that there are dictionaries such as this one.
dictionary-south-african-english

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Age & Decade

As a writer, some specialized dictionaries are helpful, for example, when writing about children or when wanting to use slang appropriate to the age or year.

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: What’s That Word Again?

There are even dictionaries for people who know what they are looking for but don’t know the word for it!

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Foreign Words in English Usage

I enjoy The Browsers Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases. For one thing, it points out words that are in such common use that one forgets they are foreign!  Words like operetta and wanderlust.
dictionary-foreign-words

Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Slang

But my all-time favorites for fun reading are the books of slang. They are full of colorful and often funny usages, and they come in both specialized and generalized forms.

Tip for Writers

Open any dictionary at random, close your eyes, put your finger on a word, and write it down. Repeat 3-5 times. Write a sentence, paragraph, scene, or story that uses all of those words appropriately.

Takeaway for Writers and Readers

Find your perfect dictionary and enjoy a good read!

Research Roundup

research: library

Love Your Research 

I can’t imagine a writer without some tools of the trade, even if those are only a good dictionary and a thesaurus, preferably a good manual of style as well. I share a few of my favorite resources.

Writers on Writingwriting 101: love your research

There are lots of ways to get inside writers’ heads.

Bicycle History to Celebrate UCI Road World Championships 

When my interest is piqued, of course I turn to research.

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen 

Deborah Tannen has published numerous books that might be of interest to writers.

On Writing by Stephen King book cover
Stephen King’s On Writing

Dictionary of American Regional English 

Somewhere in my public life, I mentioned that I collect dictionaries. I have whole shelves of them, everything from slang to carnival jargon to common usage during the Civil War to books of insults and dirty words. I ordered all six volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English—and then thanked my husband for his birthday present to me.

Wonderful Words 

I was much taken with Ammon Shea’s book, Reading the OED, a memoir of the year he spent reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary.

Beware Beautiful Words Beware Beautiful Words

Writers are readers, by and large, and also word collectors. We tend to fall in love with words. Some writers make a career of writing about words as well as with them.

 

Love Your Research!

writing 101: love your research

I can’t imagine a writer without some tools of the trade, even if those are only a good dictionary and a thesaurus, preferably a good manual of style as well.

research books: Chicago Manual of Style, Oxford Dictionary, Thesaurus

Most of us have much more than the basics, however. I often set stories in times that are not now. Therefore, in order to get the details needed to enrich the prose and draw the reader into the period, I often rely on bits of dialogue about what something costs, or what’s being eaten or worn.

A few of my favorite references

For the cost of things, I turn first to The Value of a Dollar.

research book: The Value of a Dollar
The Value of a Dollar, Grey House Publishing

The most recent volume is 1860-2014, and new it costs $155. I first came across this book in the reference section of a library in Clifton Forge, VA, when I was researching my novel Nettie’s Books, which is set 1930-1935. I was delighted to learn that ham was 8¢ a pound back then, and that Sears was selling 25 Hershey’s 5¢ Almond Bars for $1. I wanted that book! The price of a new one was prohibitive, but by dropping back to the previous edition (pictured above), it was very reasonable. Indeed, I just ordered the one that covers 1860-2009 for $7.91 plus shipping.

As you know from other parts of this website, I collect cookbooks. But I also collect food reference books for writing, such as the two pictured here.

Being able to put waffle irons, Kool-Ade, Spam, and Jiffy Biscuit Mix in the right period is highly tempting! Among other things, such references may trigger childhood memories for readers and help draw them in.

In addition, I find it very helpful to have good references for popular culture and slang. In fact, I have several of each. I often write stories set in Appalachia some decades past, when saying an overweight woman wears clothes so tight she looks like ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack can create just the right vivid image of the woman in question as well as giving insight into the speaker. A character saying, “What a hoot!” is clearly older than the one who says, “Whatever.” The two books pictured here are rather specialized ones, but more comprehensive options are readily available both new and used.

research books: "Remember That?" and "Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit"
Remember That? and Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit

I revel in dipping into these and other references even when I’m not researching a particular writing project. Some of my favorites don’t fall into any of the above categories, but they are great stimulants to striving for better, richer language.

research book: "Falser Than a Weeping Crocodile and Other Similes"
Falser Than A Weeping Crocodile And Other Similes

I was a reader before I was a writer (weren’t we all?) and for me, these are great reads! Advice to writers: choose research and writing tools you can enjoy.

What are your favorite research books and tools?

research: library
Photo by Tamás Mészáros

Dictionary of American Regional English

Dictionary of American Regional English, Harvard University Press
Dictionary of American Regional English, Harvard University Press

Somewhere in my public life, I mentioned that I collect dictionaries. I have whole shelves of them, everything from slang to carnival jargon to common usage during the Civil War to books of insults and dirty words. I ordered all six volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English—and then thanked my husband for his birthday present to me. (Let me hasten to add that I did not buy them new directly from Harvard University Press!)

But there you have it: I am among the legions of wives who, if they want something, must buy it for themselves, and who then graciously announce to their husbands that anything bought in the vicinity of the date (e.g., birthday, anniversary, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc.) is a gift for said occasion.

Aside from the true confession above, the point of this missive is that dictionaries are beautiful, wondrous companions. Even if you aren’t a collector yourself, do browse the dictionaries in your local library. Who knows what gems you might uncover? Besides telling you the acceptable spelling(s) and pronunciation(s) of a word, you learn what part(s) of speech it can be, and something of its historical roots and evolution. And as with so many other things, often one good word leads to another! I was once asked what one book I would want if I were stranded on a desert island and I said, “The complete Oxford English Dictionary, full-size print edition.”  Technically, this might not qualify as one book, as it runs to many volumes, but if many volumes were allowed, I might have to switch my answer to the complete Dictionary of American Regional English! It sounds that delicious. I can’t wait to find out!

And while I’m on the subject of books, here’s a tidbit for another post of some sort, sometime. Awhile back I talked a bit about a book titled Why Women Have Sex, Or at least, I started off talking about that, until the conversation drifted. Well, in fairness to the breadth of my followers, let me mention MANTHROPOLOGY: The Science of Why the Modern Male is Not the Man He Used to Be, by Peter McAllister, St. Martin’s Press. This book purports to span continents and centuries creating an in-depth look into the history and science of manliness. From speed and strength to beauty and sex appeal, it examines how man today compares to his masculine ancestors. Surely it would be an informative and entertaining read!