Word Wealth

oxford dictionaries

You may know that I love dictionaries! Indeed, I have four shelves of dictionaries that look much like the above—only less photogenic! And I’ll tell you right up front that my goal for today is to turn your liking for dictionaries into loving. After all, words are the building blocks of stories, the most basic tool of the craft. And dictionaries contain a wealth of information.
dictionary definition

Why one dictionary isn’t enough:

1. Language is constantly evolving. New words are added every year. So, depending on the time when you set your story, you may need an “age appropriate” dictionary. The current vocabulary is so important that books that are not actual dictionaries nevertheless have sections on language, books such as Everyday Life In The Middle Ages, Everyday Life in Colonial America, etc. The timeliness of language is particularly true for slang. Heaven forbid you should drop “far out” (meaning extraordinary or bizarre in the 1960s) into a story set in the 1950s. And there are dictionaries for that!

 

dewdroppers waldos slackers
2. Language varies by occupation or profession. I have dictionaries that focus on war slang by war, a dictionary of jargon by profession, a dictionary of mob speak.

 

3. Language is regional as well as time specific. I have dictionaries of American English (so labeled), Australian English, and South African English—and there are probably more out there reflecting English as spoken around the world. But some, such as Yankee Speak, are much closer to home. How To Speak Southern, published in 1976, may be dated (or not) depending on when your story happens. But in any case, it’s short and worth a read just for the laughs.

 

4. Using archaic words can spice up your writing as long as the context makes the meaning clear. For example, biblioklept (meaning book thief), fleshquake (a tremor of the body), or crop-lifting (to steal a crop of standing grain).

 

word museum
5. Actually—and perhaps not surprisingly—I especially like dictionaries of weird words. Where else would one come across words like “nihilarian” (meaning a person who deals with things of no importance)?
weird wonderful words
Of course, one person’s “no importance” is another person’s passion! So a character using that label/word says a lot about the speaker. Indeed, a character who’s makes a habit of using esoteric words is rich with possibilities!

 

word wealth
6. And then there are common, easily understood words that are seldom used. Some of these are very personal. For example, my high school English teacher had an explicitly stated aversion to the word “bother” and urged saying “it isn’t” rather than “it’s not” because the latter sounded too much like snot. Consider dropping uncomfortable words into your narrative and/or dialogue to create a bit of unease or tension in the reader, and/or to characterize your character. Consider your—or your character’s—uncomfortable words.

 

7. Why not just look words up online? Now this is getting personal to me. If you need to check the spelling and/or definition of a particular word, the internet is quick and dirty—i.e. efficient. The problem (in my opinion) is that you get what you ask for. With a physical dictionary, you can easily tumble into reading nearby entries. So you look fulminate (criticize harshly) and wander into fulsome (sickening or excessive behavior)—and there’s a whole new adjective you can use!
dictionary
Bottom line: We all know writers read. Try reading a dictionary or two!

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!