Odds and Ends.
Compilers of strange dictionaries yearn for
high purpose and practical value
* * * * * * * * *
T HE LAST WORDS of Leo Tolstoy were plaintive and strangely compliant: “I do not understand what I have to do.” The philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel was in the end tantalizing: “But the consummate and perfect knowledge—” reads the last entry in his last lecture, forever unfinished. The gangster “Dutch” Schultz left life delirious, sounding like the staccato of a submachine gun. “Henry! Max!” he yelled. “Come over here. French Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.”
Dying words: like the last line of a long poem, they are profound because they are the end . Sometimes they mock the human condition. “God bless you all,” Sir Walter Scott said to his family . “I feel myself again.” And sometimes—often—— they are unexpectedly apt. “I believe,” Adam Smith said, “we must adjourn this meeting to some other place.”
All this and more we can glean from Edward S. Le Comte’s Dictionary of Last Words, one of the thousands of dictionaries compiled since some ancients produced an Akkadian-Sumerian word list in the seventh century B.C. Most of these books ---- which collect, describe, and classify words or facts—are practical. What is more useful than a dictionary? Idiosyncratic dictionaries strive to he useful too. A person unable to dislodge the word on the tip of his tongue, for example, may find it in Theodore Bernstein’s Reverse Dictionary. The reader simply looks up the meaning—”cave explorer”—and discovers the unremembered word: spelunker.
But in many other dictionaries the odd word or fact is the point: A Dictionary of Clichés. A Dictionary of Nicknames. The Code Names Dictionary. A Dictionary of Words About Alcohol. A Dictionary of Misprints . A Dictionary of Polish Terms Defining the Goldsmith’s Works. These books often, though
intentionally, raise the question Why in the world would anyone take the trouble to produce this?
Some of those who did take the trouble are naifs and dilettantes and wiseacres; some of them are quirky and crazed and zealous. Others, however, are earnest and intelligent, and credibly defend the purpose and value of their books.
A CLASSIC in the field is ,Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words. The daughter of the violinist Jascha Heifetz, Josefa Heifetz Byrne has sifted through many dictionaries in order to find 6,000 bizarre terms. Her readers can quickly discover lalochezia (talking dirty to relieve tension) and eroterne (the question mark). Mrs. Byrnes in hand, a person can indict a writer for mytacisrn (excessive or incorrect use of the letter M), snicker at his neighbor’s lythcoop (auction of household goods), and commiserate over his frustrated friend’s supinovalent spouse (able to make love only while lying down). Or he can praise the present exercise as adoxography (good writing on a trivial subject).
Dabblers in odd dictionaries can play word games, too, using such works as James B. Hobbs’s Hornophones and Homographs: An American Dictionary. The former arc words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Double homophones are common (dents, dense), But how many quintuples (air, heir, ere, err, eyre) come to mind? Homographs are spelled the same but differ in pronunciation and meaning—does (the verb) and does (female deer).
Weird words, word games—it’s play, of course, but not merely. Verbal odd moments enrich life. A comb’s teeth are orlings. A paper clip has seven (7) named parts. Flip through Dorothy Rose Blumberg’s Whose What? Aaron’s Beard Zorn’s Lemma, a dictionary of possessive phrases. In its pages is Ullba’s Ring, which is a rainbow formed in fog. Named for an eighteenth-century Spanish scientist, the ring differs marked from an ordinary rainbow, appearing blue on the inner rim, red on the outer and colorless in between. (The very small size of fog droplets accounts for the difference.)
New words also sharpen thoughts. blabblurt is a remark overheard by someone the speaker ardently wishes hadn’t overheard. Unusual words can highlight the mysteries of language. Consider this entry from Mrs. Byrne’s; “bizmer—(bizmur) n. 1. shame, disgrace, scorn. 2. a disgraceful person, a steelyard. 4. the fifteen- spined stickleback.” Fascinating!
The authorial pastime moves easily from fact to fiction. In An Exaltation of Larks, for instance, the wordsmith James Lipton gathered collective nouns, many of them real (a “parliament of owls,” a “clowder of cats”) but some contrived (a “slouch of models,” “pound of pianists”). Nor are the games confined to words; one can play with facts. Adrian Room, the compiler of Room’s Dictionary of Gonfusibles (maudlin or mawkish? coddle or cosset?), also produced the Dictionary of Trade Name 0rigins (Why are there no grapes or nuts in Grape Nuts?).
But, real or invented, these words or facts confer the gift of novelty without complication, of variety without confusion. Each strange term— trantles (things of little value), philtram (the vertical furrow between nose and upper lip)—is small and simple and still, a butterfly fixed and formaldehyded. Each is defined in no more than a sen tence fragment. Dilling: a child of old parents. No more than that. Different, but not deep.
T HE ODDBALL DICTIONARY can be a vehicle for armchair adventure through time and space. What standard history would reveal that the seventeenth century had twenty-one synonyms for pun (carriwitchet, liripoop), as one dictionary of lost words tells us? Savor, too, Jack Smilcy’s Hash House Lingo, and listen to coffee-shop talk in the war years (apron up: “pregnant” blackout. “coffee , no milk”). And admire the artless grace in Harvey Sheppard’s Dictionary of Railway Slang, a British volume. Along with railroad jargon (sparkler: electric train”; snip; ticket collector”), the book, like the best of its kind, gives us words of wide application (a spudler is “one who causes trouble indirectly”; the brilliant steam pig is “anybody or anything not specifically definable”).
But through all the fun something gnaws at the compilers of such books. And so they strive mightily to drape their books in the garb of the dictionary realm: high purpose and practical value. “For uncounted centuries” death-bed utterances have been “the daily stuff of legends,” Le Comte writes in Last Words. To hear these phrases, he avers, is to “visit at the cave of possible wisdom......”
Indeed! At times the justifications are heroic. Consider the Initialisms & Abbreviations Dictionary, edited by Jennifer Mossman. Most dictionaries of abbreviations take an abbreviation and then define it: NF—”Not Fordable.” The effort by Mossman—and it is not alone—works in reverse. In such books a reader might look up “United States of America” and find USA. In the broad scheme of things, how useful can such works be? Mossman responds with vigor.
“Jf all abbreviated terms were as logically formed as Royal Artillery—RA,” Mossman concedes, there would be “little need” for her book . However, “the countless exceptions to this generalized formation . . . make a guide essential,” she then declares. ”Receipt Acknowledged, for instance, is not shortened to RA, but rather to REACK; Sisters of the Most Holy Sacrament is abbreviated as MHS, not SMHS.” And, she observes darkly, should a student abbreviate his Bachelor of Interior Architecture degree as BIA, he will unwittingly have conferred upon himself a vastly different credential, the Bachelor of Industrial Arts.
A lengthy argument such as this is not always needed. For certain constituencies, some peculiar dictionaries are invaluable. Graduate students desperate for dissertation topics can constilt André Joseph Launay’s Dictionary of Contemporaries, for instance .This work shows “who were the contemporaries of any writer, artist, composer, philosopher or other influentially creative person of note, born at any time before 1900 A.D.” Armed with the knowledge that James Whitcomb Riley was roughly contemporary with Arthur Rimhaud—ditto for Luigi Pirandello and Edwin Arlington Robinson—the student can proceed to search for literary influences.
N OT EVERY ECCENTRIC dictionary, of course, achieves its aspirations toward practicality. But never mind, for practical utility is hardly the sum of human requirements. People not only want dilling and lythcoop, they need them in order to live well. They also require the subtle distinction (whirl or whorl?), the historical tidbit (Liverpool was founded in 1199), the curious fact (twelve Matildas have been granted sainthood).
Thus we may not know the relative roles of nature and nurture in personality formation, or the best balance for the commonweal between individual responsibility and paternalism. We have no clear answer to the Homeric Question, and our researchers have discovered no cure for AIDS. But we do have the Dictionary of Foreign Words in Ukrainian. This book consists of those foreign-to-Ukrainian words that Ukrainians use.
In A Dictionary of Battles, David Eggenberger imposes order on the central human act of disorder: war. The book “covers more than 1,560 separate and distinct military engagements, from the first battle of Megiddo in 1479 B.C. to the fighting in Vietnam during the 1960’s,” Eggenberger writes in his preface. “A battle may be further defined,” he says in another typical passage, “ by distinguishing it from a skirmish, a raid, or a siege.” The book, the reader soon learns, is far from the battlefield. Ordeal has become order; confusion has become criteria; soldiers, bleeding and dazed and scurrying pell-mell have coalesced into two columns of type, justified.
Are some wars just? Will future editions of A Dictionary of Battles speak of
2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 encounters? The Dictionary, of course, cannot tell us. But it does what it can . For example, we learn that Jerusalem, where nine engagements have been fought, is the most embattled place in the world. How many more fights will take place in that beleaguered city? Again Battles cannot tell us, but this it can say, and say with conviction: Rome, having survived seven engagements, is not far
Everyman’s Dictionary of Dates tells us that Shah Jehan built the Taj Mahal in memory of his favorite wife, who died in 1629. It also tells us that this enduring monument to love took twenty-two years to construct (1630-1652). How much did they love, these fabled lovers? How can great love and irreversible death coexist? The book, of course, does not know, but within the province of dates—In what year (and month!) was the Little Ententc formed? When was the Koh-i-Noor Diamond given to Queen Victoria?— Dates does answer, and does so with confident, comforting mastery.
S OME OF THESE PLUCKY LEXICOGRAPHERS take on large subjects. The Dictionary of Love is one example; another, especially endearing, is The International Dictionary of Thoughts, which follows this outline: I. General. II. Bible. III. Shakespeare.
But many offbeat dictionaries address matters far more modest. A sampler: The Dictionary of Literary Pseudonyms. A Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen. The Dictionary of Disasters at Sea During the Age of Steam. The Dictionary of Colonial American Printers’ Ornaments and Illustrations. The Dictionary of Herveys of All Classes, Callings, Counties, and Spellings, from 1040 to 1500, by Sydenham Henry Augustus Hervey.
Whether their topic is large or little, many of these lexicographers, especially those from a more innocent age, seem full of beans and hope. They are busy can-do beavers, confident that they can dictionary the world. We’ll record all the words, all the facts, they say, and soon the seeming chaos will coalesce into one gorgeous rule, just as gravity’s many manifestations became Newton’s law.
To the listless modern cynic, this naive energy can he either charming or annoying. Sure, one is tempted to say, and as soon as we straighten out this Welshmen situation, we can address ourselves to Tagalog eponyms, rhyming Mandarin slang, and Esperanto punctuation conventions. Then, by degrees, maybe we’ll get to some of those other pesky little projects—say, the nature of evil, and why man’s reach exceeds his grasp.
—Francis Flaherty SOURCE:
The ATLANTIC Monthly
Volume 271 No. 2
FEBRUARY, 1993. (Pgs. 40-44)
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