J is for Josepha Byrne

On the second day of the A-Z Challenge, I planned to write about Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual Obscure and Preposterous Words, a favorite book I acquired in the seventies, but I couldn’t find it. So, I opted to do J for Josefa (Mrs. Byrne’s first name) on Day 12—surely enough time to find my copy. I described the book to my wife, who excels at lost item detection.

“It’s a hardback,” I told her, emphasizing “that it had “a yellow cover, black typescript running across it. Published by University Books.” Several days passed. No luck.

Maybe my local library system had it. Not listed. I checked World Cat (“Find items in libraries near you”) which catalogs two billion items. I typed in the full name of the book and the nearest library came up: “Qatar University, Dohar, Qatar, 7300 miles away.” Hmm, a little too distant for an Inter-Library Loan (ILL) request, even for our local library manager Brian Hulsey, a 2017 ALA-designated “Emerging Leader.”

I limited the search to the first three words of the title, “Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary.” A 1995 edition retitled The Word Lover’s Dictionary: unusual, obscure and preposterous words, flashed on the screen and was available at six libraries in the region. The nearest: Toppinish, WA, 190 miles; the furthest, Brigham Young University, 790 miles.

Then I found a 2012 edition, The Indispensable Dictionary of Unusual Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, published by Skyhorse in New York (the same publisher of The Making of the President 2016 which I referenced in another blog, “Understanding the Other”). I ordered it. Before it came in the mail, my wife found the original copy. Since I had sent Amory on a quest for a book with a yellow cover, it was especially good that she was able to find it. (P.S. She’s had many years experience finding things I’ve lost.)

The cover was missing, the spine label damaged and half-detached. I wandered through its familiar pages, especially noting the three dozen words and definitions I’d written on the back cover, among them

  • logolept: n. a word maniac
  • subboreal: adj. cold but not freezing
  • tarassis: n. male hysteria
  • myomancy: n. fortune telling by watching mice
  • pangram: n. a sentence containing every letter of the alphabet: “Q.V. Schwatzkp, Jr., bungled my fix.” n. pangrammatist
  • rhytiphobia: n. fear of getting wrinkles

I don’t recall ever using any of these words in sentences. It’s too late to talk about rhytiphobia and there are no males in my life who are hysterical. My feet often feel subboreal, but why should I complain—my oldest son, to whom I bequeathed thitendencycy, bought us both foot warming blankets. I wonder if there are any words ending in “mancy” that describe my fear of talking like a logolept. I don’t often use unusual words or write in pangrams, though I do love unusual words and learning the derivations of any word. They each have a story.

I’m heartened that Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary has a 21st Century life, but speaking of life, I wonder if she is still alive. I looked in multiple sources, but I couldn’t find any current information. The back cover bio of the 2012 edition says she “was a lexicographer…[and] was the author of several music books.” Does the past tense indicate that she’s no longer with us or no longer a lexicographer? If it’s the latter, retirement from the field could be celebrated.  Samuel Johnson defines a lexicographer as “a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the origin and detailing the signification of words.” On the other hand, a lexicographer, the historian Macaulay says, “may well be content if his productions are received by the world with cold esteem.”

Josefa is no longer Mrs. Byrne. She married Robert Byrne in 1958. They had one child, Russell, and divorced in 1976, which accounts for the omission of the phrase “Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary” in subsequent editions. Robert Byrne’s “Editor’s Introduction” is included and is exactly the same in the 2012 version, ending with these fine words: “The author and editor apologize for the ammunition this book provides to bad writers.”

Thanks, Mrs. Byrne, I’ve enjoyed forty years of thinking about words because of you.

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3 thoughts on “J is for Josepha Byrne

    1. You’re the one who helped me launch my blog last year so I COULD do A-Z and you’re the one who asked if I were going to do it this year. I wasn’t. Then I did. Because of your reminder.

      Liked by 1 person

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