X Marks the Spot, J.M. Barrie, The Urban Dictionary, and Xystus

According to the online Urban Dictionary, “X marks the spot” was a symbol pirates used to designate the location of treasure. Then the British Army appropriated the phrase and the X for executions. They marked a piece of paper with a black X and positioned it on the heart of someone sentenced to death. The officer in charge would announce “X marks the spot” and the firing squad would shoot the x.

Bear in mind that, like Wiktionary which uses volunteers, the Urban Dictionary relies on its users to add content. One can vote on a word or phrase by choosing, “Add it,” “Keep out,” or “Can’t decide.”

This edgy database called the Urban Dictionary kinda does and kinda doesn’t take itself seriously as in this March 2017 definition:

“An outlet for word addicts, who can be grouped into six main characters: the rarely creative, the hypocritically cynical, the politically irreverent, the sexually depraved, the religiously racist, and the sarcastically narcissistic. On a lighter note, the Urban Dictionary motivates us not to take life seriously—let’s laugh at our idiocies and idiosyncrasies, not to say, our frailties and fatalities.”

Back to X Marks the Spot. The Oxford English Dictionary, which I never tire of accessing for quotations indicating usage over time, quotes J. M. Barrie’s 1918 line from Echoes of War: “In the rough sketch drawn for to-morrow’s press, ‘Street in which the criminal resided’…you will find Mrs. Dowey’s home therein marked with an X.”

We know Sir James Matthew Barrie not for his short story collections (Echoes of War) or for his theatrical productions (What Every Woman Knows) or for his sentimental novels (The Little Minister), but for Peter Pan, first performed as a play in London in 1904.

The letter “X” (24th in the alphabet) marks the spot, so to speak, where I shorten my blogs because I have three to write in one day to complete the A-Z Blog Challenge. My wife suggested that I write a single blog spotlighting a word that contained X, Y, and Z. Great idea, I thought, certain that I’d run into one in our Scrabble dictionary.

There were no words, other than long scientific ones, that contained all three letters. (Prove me wrong, if you know of one!) The closest I could come was the noun xystus which can also be spelled zystus.

The OED defines Xystus like this: “Among the ancient Greeks, a long covered portico or court used for athletic exercises; among the ancient Romans, an open colonnade, or walk planted with trees, used for recreation and conversation.”

Wrestlers also used Xisti. (Xisti is one of the plurals of zystus): “Zystus was a Place where the Wrestlers exercis’d.”—Phillips New World of Words, 1706.

In 1871, F. W. Farrar wrote in Witness of History, “Philosophers…aired their elegant doubts in the shady xystus.”

I leave this shady xystus, this shadowy blog, for the letter Y.


The Word Detective…Again

Way back on April 5th, I talked about John Simpson’s The Word Detective, a memoir about Simpson’s time as an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. Meanwhile, I found The Word Detective by Evan Morris, published in 2000 by Algonquin, a most charming book, right there on my very own bookshelf.

The Word Detective is a collection of columns from Morris’ newspaper and internet columns. The format is Q and A. I opened the book to page one. Doris A. from Toledo asked about the phrase “run amok.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase myself. Lately, our pastor’s sermons, always ebullient, as she herself is, have  contained the sentence  “The spirit is running amok.” I think she means that God-driven spirituality is on a fierce upswing in our congregation. Perhaps so, but to my discredit, I visualized some kind of unholy ghost cyclone touching down on the Peterson’s pew to awaken a dozing spouse or swooping up (kindly, of course) the ever cranky Matthews’ toddler.

Evan Morris explains that amok comes from the Malay word amuck—“a state of murderous frenzy.” The story goes that inhabitants of Malaysia were given to bouts of depression and drug use, a combination leading to murderous rampages. “Anyone in the path of the person running amok,” Morris explained, “was likely to be sliced and diced with a particularly nasty native sword known as a kris.” The word was also applied to out-of-control elephants who attacked humans.

Morris observes that the meaning in English has become diluted as the centuries rolled by and has become a metaphor used “to describe someone who was simply out of control in some respect and not necessarily chopping folks up.”

I feel much better now, but smile suppression will not work if I hear anything amok preached from the pulpit.

What I don’t feel better about—and now I’m quite serious—is my tardy discovery of Evan Morris. The Word Detective began 62 years ago as “Words, Wit and Wisdom”by  Evan’s father, William Morris, an editor in chief at both Grosset and Dunlap and American Heritage Dictionary.His column appeared in newspapers all over the country and abroad. After writing for thirty-five years, he announced at the dinner table one Sunday afternoon, that it was time for him to quit—unless one of his six grown children were interested in assuming it.

Evan heard himself say he’d take a shot at it. He did. Eventually, he posted the column online. Hundreds of discussions are archived. He has taken on obscure and common words and phrases—malaprops and mondegreens,  duck soup, kerfuffle, hara kirl, brouhaha, flesh out and flummoxed, Peck’s Bad Boy and the Pied Piper.

But now a great sadness. Unlike his father who chose to discontinue writing his column, Evan Morris is being forced to discontinue writing. He has advanced multiple sclerosis and stage four cancer. His last columns are witty and graceful explanations of his declining health and financial reverses. Take a look a look here at his website, Check out the archives, an amazing compilation of etymological dissections and whimsical digressions.  Contribute to his site. I’m going to.

You might even want to contribute to his cause which can be done through PayPal or by sending a check, small or large, to Evan Morris, P.O. Box 1, Millersport OH 43046.

I’m going to.

V is for a Vigilant Virago

I never know where I’m going to find a compelling word, in this case, a V-word—in, say, the OED,  from one of our 30+ word books, or in some random, unexpected place.

Since I had a hangover bad mood, triggered by yesterday’s two-hour wait for a mudslide-delayed Amtrak train and then, today, a 90-minute wait in a doctor’s office, I thought this self-description might apply. Virago: “a fierce, bad-tempered woman.” (Source: The Superior Person’s Book of Words).

Such an admittance of distemper (rare, I assure you, the distemper, that is) could qualify me as a veracious individual: “Habitually speaking or disposed to speak the truth; observant of the truth; truthful.” (Source: OED.) In  The Superior Person’s…Words, Peter Bowler points out that veracious is pronounced exactly like voracious: “Of greedy disposition.”

Just because I like the mellifluous oddity of English sentences from older times, I present a few illustrative quotations from the OED:

Virago: “And as to the Neutralities, I really think the Russian virago an impertinent Puss for meddling with us.”—William Cowper, 1781

Veracious: “I am a most veracious person, and Totally unacquainted with untruth.”— Percy B. Shelley, 1822

Voracious: “I had seen him about a year before…and had noted well the unlovely voracious look of him.”—Thomas Carlyle, 1850

V, I vouchsafe, is the beginning letter of negative descriptors on the glass-half-full spectrum of attitude and behavior: Vapulation; flogging; Vecordy: mad, obsessive;  vellicate: to twitch or cause to twitch: Varlet: Low, menial scoundrel; Venefical:  associated with malignant sorcery or witchcraft.

I was glad to find a v-word of a positive nature, Vigilant,  in one of those random, unexpected places, a museum bathroom. The Vigilant was a five-masted schooner that won a Hawaii-to-Bellingham race in 1930. Hence, its picture hangs in one of the less prominent, but much-used rooms, of the Old City Hall Museum on Prospect Street in Bellingham, Washington.

I will be vigilant—that is,”wakeful and watchful; keeping steadily on the alert; attentively or closely observant” (OED)”— with respect to language.  I hope never to describe myself as a vigilant virago.

U is for An Uber-Cool driver

Über, borrowed from the German, is a prefix that crowns a noun: A geek becomes an uber-geek, a runway fashion queen becomes an uber-model.

“An uber building came about…an enormous quasi-crystalline structure that reached out multicolored limbs of fiberglass and plastic.”—Stang, Three-Fisted Tales of ‘Bob,’ 1990

Or, uber commingles with an adjective to create uber-rich or uber-cool.

“‘I like to consider myself part of the new wave of couturiers,’ explains the Nashville-born Talbot from his atelier just off the city’s uber-chic Maximilianstrasse.”—Vanity Fair, 1992

Now we have a standalone noun in a black rectangle, without an umlaut, that we look for on the windshield or hanging from the mirror of a sleek, new model car.

Which is why my wife Amory and I and two friends, Peggy and Victoria, were standing in front of the Hotel Vetiver in Queens at the end of a five-day New York City vacation. We wanted to get to Penn Station and our train to New Jersey without navigating subway stairs in the rain.

Curbside, a shiny, black Nissan appeared and out popped Steve, a tall, handsome man with dreadlocks, a winning smile, and ready hands for holding doors and fitting suitcases in his car.

Conversation was easy. We found out he drives for three companies—Juno, Lyfft, and Uber. “You’ve gotta work twelve-hour days or it isn’t worth it. First, you have to buy an $800 license. Then you have to buy insurance on top of your regular insurance which can be $3000-$5000. So you gotta work long hours. I drink a lot of coffee. But, I love driving.”

” I grew up right here,” Steve continued, “right here in Queens.”

“Have you lived anywhere else?”

“Oh, everywhere. In Atlanta the longest, three years, but I’m a New Yorker.”

And now, I thought, there’s a New Yorker in the White House. I wonder how I can find out what he thinks about that.

“What was it like in New York when Trump was elected” I ventured.

Steve paused. I worried.”I just sat back and laughed,” he said. “The Ringling Brothers Circus closed and all the clowns were going to Washington. We’ve elected a shock jock. There’s no difference between him and Howard Stern. Except for money.”

“I just sat back and laughed,” he said. “The Ringling Brothers Circus closed and all the clowns were going to Washington. We’ve elected a shock jock. There’s no difference between him and Howard Stern. Except for money.”

I think we all relaxed, and soon, despite the bumper-to-bumper traffic, we were in front of Penn Station.

“I hate driving to New Jersey. Thanks for not making me go there,” he smiled.

We rolled ourselves out of the Nissan’s cozy confines. I pivoted and swooped up my suitcase, backpack, and some loose items belonging to my friends. I handed Steve a Starbucks card. Such a nice guy. He smiled and waved.The Altima, amidst a crush of yellow cabs and honking horns, pulled into the traffic.

“I got your stuff,” I said to my traveling companions. Blank looks. No one can do a blank look like Peggy, the only Ph.D. and scientist in the group.

For the first time, I observed what I had grabbed: a bag with protruding tissue paper, a canvas briefcase with an unfamiliar red log, and a large black leather jacket. Men’s.

Uh oh.

I had stolen Steve’s stuff. I was going to jail. Steve would be arrested. He had to turn in his rental car the next day. Without papers.  We would miss our flight. While I stood there in a welter of emotion, Amory and Victoria, searched through Steve’s briefcase and found papers with phone numbers.

“Leave a message” wasn’t helpful. Neither was a disconnected line or an Uber helpline. t Victoria, who had made the reservation, called Uber again, accessing a series of menus, and finally got an Uber person who listened and agreed to call Steve. Uber called back. Steve hadn’t answered. Victoria handed the phone to me.

I stumbled through an explanation. “I’ll call him again for you,” the pleasant voice said, “and let you know what he wants to do.” Again he didn’t answer, but she had left him a message with my phone number.

“Could another Uber driver pick up his belongings, or could we leave it somewhere for him to get them?”I queried. “We need to catch our flight.”

“We have a Lost and Found in Hoboken.”

“I don’t even know where that is.” Exasperation crept into my voice. “Do we just call another Uber and say ‘take us to Hoboken?'”

And then, Steve called. “OmiGod,” he said after I stumbled through my story. “I’m driving without my papers. Where are you? I’ll come get them. I don’t want you to miss your flight. Wait right there on the corner.”

He switched to texting. “I’m 20 minutes away. Is that okay or should I get out my batmobile?” Then he phoned again. “I don’t want you to miss your flight. My wife works two blocks from there. She might get there before I do.”

She did, a person as friendly and happy as Steve. We hugged, Amory took a picture, Steve’s wife went back to work, and we didn’t miss our flight.

Steve is an Uber-Guy.






Titular, Temulency, and Tetragram

What I really want to write about is the book I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, The Superior Person’s Book of Words, but neither the title, the author’s name, Peter Bowler, nor the publisher’s handle, David R. Godine, begin with a “T.”

So, to meet the minimal requirement and to showcase the wit of this Australian lexicographer, I’m  extracting three of Bowler’s seventeen listed T-words.

Titular a. “Derived from the holding of a title; nominal. Thus the titular head of a country is usually the President, Prime Minister, Dictator, etc, as distinct from the effective head, who is usually his wife, cleaning lady, golfing partner, etc. ”

Temulency n. “Inebriation, drunkenness. Another good one for sick-leave application forms.”

Tetragram n. “A word with four letters. Note that the phrase “four-letter word” is pejorative (q.v.), but that tetragram is not. Do what you can to remedy this situation.”

The Superior Person’s Book of Words was Bowler’s first book, published in 1979.  Everything about this book makes me smile, including the cleverly composed jacket copy describing him as some who

becomes noticeably tongue-tied in the face of questioning and indeed has been known to break down completely and admit to being just an easily confused fat man with a poor memory

and the author’s demurring stabs at humility in the Acknowledgments:

I cannot let these definitions go before the public without acknowledging the contributions made by Dr. Ernest Foot…who worked with me on the manuscripts and wrote several of the definitions. To me should go much of the credit for whatever virtues this book possess; the odium for any faults must rest entirely with him.”

Two more word books followed. The Superior Person’s Second Book of Wierd and Wondrous Words (1992), and The Superior Persons Third Book of Well-Bred Words (2001).In addition to Bowler’s erudite word books, he wrote a book about cults; The True Believer;  two novels, Human Remains and The De Reszke Record; a children’s book of verse, The Creepy-Crawly, and, a book on child development, Your Child from One to Ten.

His niche popularity (at least one of his word books has been in print since 1969) resulted in Godine’s publication of a three-box set In 2012. The author’s purpose was to give readers

a more finely tuned engine of the language they speak, so they may more readily assert their linguistic superiority over their fellow travelers at the traffic stops of life.

Who doesn’t enjoy Bowler’s pillage of the arcanum of archaic and obscure, esoteric and unusual words? On the Godine web page, his publishers say that Bowler has had a “Road to Damascus” conversion, prompting the return to simple, straightforward language. They published The Superior Person’s Field Guide to Deceitful, Deceptive, and Downright Dangerous Language in 2007— Ten years ago!

I think I better read it.

David Bodine 

Superior Person— A Remembrance

On Monday morning, April 3rd, the day my brother-in-law died, I was scanning through our word book collection and came upon two copies of the The Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler.

I extracted the one inscribed by Corinne Hayak, a LaConner Regional Library board member. Corinne was chair of the board that took a chance on hiring me, a recent but older and inexperienced library school graduate, as their first library director with a professional credential. I so appreciated their leap of faith and continuing support, not to mention the carefully calligraphed message on the book: October 26, 1999 [a few months after my appointment] “To celebrate the English language and your fun with words.”

Until I looked, I’d forgotten that the second copy was a birthday gift from my jokester brother-in-law, Kent Lambert. The $9.95 price was scratched out and $49.95 was penciled in. On the flyleaf he wrote, “Happy Birthday to my favorite Washington sister-in-law! Kent. January 3, 1988.” Never mind, that I was his only sister-in-law in Washington.

I remember the moment I first saw Kent. I was a junior at Mt. Whitney High in Visalia, California and he was a freshman. He was standing at the open door of his K building locker, a few feet away from me. He didn’t look up. One of my friends whispered, “That’s Kent Lambert, Mark’s little brother.” He was tall, thin-faced, and, I soon learned, very shy.

Many years later after his brother Mark and I were married, he came to our apartment in Beverly Hills. Just as tall, not quite so thin-faced, and much more confident in his Air Force uniform. He leaned down to give me a hug. “Hi, Sis.” he said. Those two words made me tear up: an only child, no one had ever called me Sis. Then there was the Spring evening he rang the doorbell of our Birchwood Street house. There on our porch stood a man saddened by the probability of divorce.

The following December he again stood on our porch, holding  Care Bears for each of our three daughters. On Christmas during another year—I can’t remember which—he came with another present. He’d been commercial fishing and his summer adventure had been successful. He bought us our first VCR. In time, he regrouped from his first marriage and married again.

When I divorced his brother and remarried, Kent and I were still friends. His wedding present to Amory and me was the perfect gift: a home inspection. Kent was the first home inspector in our county. It was said that if you were buying a house, you wanted Kent Lambert. If you were selling a house, you didn’t want Kent Lambert. Fortunately, we were buyers. He provided a thorough inspection, resulting in several thousand dollars worth of improvements paid for the seller.

Nine days before he died, at his request, he and his wife Ramona, held a Living Wake. I’m not sure how many friends and family were there. The living room was cleared of furniture, prepared with microphones and lots of chairs. When Kent came in, he looked around the room, and started counting how many of us had come. Vintage Kent. We all laughed.

A beautiful and jubilant spirit prevailed. Norman, the oldest brother who had already lost his brother Mark, spoke as did both of Kent’s children, Matthew and Alexa. His oldest grandson, Samuel, read a poem. Matt’s wife Kay put together a video collage of photos. When Ramona said it would be made available to everyone free, Kent quipped “They should pay.”

I won’t leave this remembrance without a funny word from the book he gave me, succedaneum, n.

A substitute, resorted to when the real thing is not available. Normally an object (as, for instance, a baby’s pacifier); but may be used of persons (as, for instance, by Walpole: ’In lieu of men, you will have a charming succedaneum Lady Harriet Stanhope.’

I do not know (but will find out for another blog) who Lady Harriet Stanhope was, but I do know that Kent would laugh at the word succedaneum and I know there is no succedaneum for Kent Lambert, a superior person.

I will miss him.



Resistance is the theme Red Wheelbarrow Writers selected as its blog topic for 2017—an apt response for this time of political tumult.

Blog coordinator Di Woods e-blasted a plea for members to sign up for a blog slot. “Resist,” she began, and included a dictionary definition and a question, “What does this word mean to you?”

I didn’t laugh out loud, but I thought of my favorite writing teacher’s reaction. When novelist Laura Kalpakian, sees front-and-center inclusions of dictionary definitions, she yawns and closes her eyes in boredom. Then her Editor-Self returns: she shouts or scrawls NO across the culprit manuscript.

But, here I am, having made dictionary definitions the mainstay of my daily  A-Z Blog Challenge—because I can’t help it, because I love the Oxford English Dictionary, and because my wife gave me an OED subscription for Christmas. Boom, the OED was back on my desktop and the A-Z Blog Challenge was just the catalyst to ensure daily use of the OED and to justify my wife’s generosity.

Di’s definition of resistance was to push back, fight back, counter attack, and battle—all good synonyms. Resistance requires action, non-existent if residing only in the passive presence of a writer genuflecting in front of the OED.

The OED’s definition begins like this: “The action of resisting, opposing or withstanding someone or something.” As usual, the lexicographers provided an example of early usage, this time from the Coverdale Bible, “Eccl. iv. 12: One maye be ouercome, but two maye make resistance.”

Exactly. Two is better than one. Hence, my joining of Whatcom Undaunted, a group of twenty-five smart women (educators, lawyers, administrators) that meets every three weeks to have study sessions, share information and promote action. As a result, I am better informed. I pay more attention to the activities of Indivisible and the calls to action by League of Women Voters, and I enjoy working alongside two other women to assist in the development and maintenance to the website.

Though a newcomer to political activism, I strongly believe in the Ronald Reagan quotation emblazoned on the WU website: “A leader once convinced that a particular course of action is the right one must be undaunted when the going gets tough.”

Here’s another definition from the OED: “Organized opposition to an invading, occupying or ruling power; individuals engaged in such opposition…such as the underground movement formed in France in June 1940 with the object of resisting the authority of the German occupying forces and the Vichy government.”

I like that word invading. The Invader-in-Chief’s birthplace (Queens), education (Wharton School of Business), and ubiquitous entrepreneurial successes do not shield him from the traits associated with outside invaders: hostility, aggression, and encroachment.

An underground movement is surging. One aspect has been documented in Why We March: Signs of Protest and Hope, a collection of “Voices from the Women’s March” (Artisan Press, 2017) illustrated through banners and signs. Whimsical ones abound:

“You can’t comb over misogyny;” “I’ve Seen better cabinets at IKEA;” “Super Callous Narcissistic  Extra Braggadocious.”

Protest signs dominate:

“If you aren’t horrified, you aren’t paying attention;” “Chin Up/Fangs Out!” “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty.”

If you think injustice is becoming law, what ways will you find to push back, fight back, counter attack, battle, resist, oppose, attack, and withstand invasion?


Q is for A Quiver of Cobras…for one thing

I turned to my wife Amory’s collection of alphabet books200 and counting—to see what authors had chosen for their Q words, the 17th letter of our alphabet.

A beautiful book called Bembo’s Zoo by Brazilian-born artist Robert de Vicq de Cumptich cleverly represented Quail with typography; Ken Wilson-Max did a nice job of depicting Quiet in L is for Loving; and, the Seattle Seahawks ABC board book offered a colorful Quarterback

For this blog, I chose a range of books that included words new to me.

A Zeal of Zebras (2010),  written and illustrated by “a collective of four friends [who call themselves Woop Studios] united by a love of graphic design, words, and images,”  used the unfamiliar (to me) phrase A Quiver of Cobras, and provided three compelling facts: 1) King cobras are the only snakes to build nests; 2. As many as 30-40 baby cobras may be born in a nest; 3. baby cobras produce poisons venom upon birth and are capable of killing.

Margaret Musgrove selected the word Quimbande for her large format book Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (1978). Leo and Diane Dillon were the illustrators. The Quimbande is an African tribe. Musgrove notes that Quimbande children can have as many as twenty-five siblings, owing to the propensity for wealthy men to have a multitude of wives.

After completing an MFA in 2015 at the University of Southern Maine, I have a new love for that state which prompts the inclusion of two Maine Alphabet books. Susan Ramsay Hoguet, author and illustrator of Maine ABC (2013), described a Quahog “whose bottom’s like its top.”The ABCs of Maine by Harry W. Smith pictures a Quoddy pilot fishing boat used in the Lubec area, a tiny town under 1500. The town’s formerly robust fishing industry has diminished. Lubec’s claim to geographic fame is that it is the most eastern town in the United States.

I remember a few words from high school Latin, enough to attract me to a small, quirky book called An Abecedarium by Lee Hendrix and Thea Vignau-Wilberg.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines Abecedarium as

The alphabet; esp. (in early use) the Roman alphabet as opposed to the Greek; (in later use) an alphabet belonging to an ancient writing system.

An Abecedarium, published in 1997 by the J. Paul Getty Museum, uses illustrations—illuminations as they’re called—commissioned by Rudolf II in the 16th century. The purpose of the illustrations was to link the alphabet to the word of God, and beyond that to “His representative on earth,” i.e. Rudolf.  The Q stands for the Latin “Quis deus magnus ut Deus?”—”Who is the great God like our God?”However strange that may seem to some of us, the illuminations are detailed and beautiful.

In McGillicutty’s Hat: a spiritual memory book or a prayerful ABC,  the author uses the word quintessential: “The walk was an easy six-block after-school jaunt from the school to Burgess Soda Fountain, a quintessential 50s hangout.” One of the OED’s definitions goes like this

Of utmost importance; necessary, essential, indispensable

Quintessential is not a new word to me or to the author, but it is of utmost importance, necessary, and essential that I include it, and in fact, conclude with it. After all, the author is Amory Peck, my wife.



P is for Perjoratives, Not Always Egregious

Every once in awhile our high school English teacher, Mr. Agol, would insert an unusual word into his lectures without including a definition, unless we asked for one. Whether I asked or not, I don’t recall, but I remember that he used the word perjorative whose meaning,  according to the OED, is “A word or expression which by its form or context expresses or implies contempt for the thing named; a derogatory word or form.”

As usual, the OED included an illustrative quote, this one from 1882: “Poetaster is a pejorative of poet.”  That sent me to the OED’s definition of poetaster: “inferior poet; a writer of poor or trashy verse; a mere versifier.”

The local poets I know are neither creators of trashy verse nor mere versifiers. Consider this poem by Victoria Doerper, published in the current issue of Cirque.

My Husband’s Map

I see South America swelling

On my husband’s right thigh,

A ragged continent in mottled ebony

With a wide swath etched in red

And scratched across Brazil.

Like some reluctant Columbus

Or Vasco de Gama,

He’s pushed off for a journey

Into the unknown.

He’s already discovered

His own volcano, a fiery lava-

Spewing crater situated

On the ball of his right foot.

And now his chronometer

Is on the blink, and the sky

Is cloudy most of the time,

So he’s navigating blind.

His body is our new map

We finger like braille,

Hoping to come upon currents

That keep us on course,

That keep us from falling

Off the edge of the world.


Doerper is a poet whether writing prose or poetry. You can see more of this non-poetaster’s work here:

*   *    * 

From my teetering stack of word books, I extracted one that I bought at a library book sale, I Always Look Up the Word “egregious” which has a chapter called “Taking a Turn for the Worse—Perjoratives.” The author devotes this chapter to words which have “gone bad.” For example, parochial and provincial, the author writes, “used in a geographic or religious sense…are still neutral descriptive terms. But used in sophisticated society, they mean “narrow,” “limited in outlook,” “not fashionable.”

The author notes that stink, odor, and reek once had favorable meanings. Diatribe in Greek culture used to mean “a short, ethical discourse,” but now implies a “long abusive or bitter speech.” Gratuitous formerly meant “given freely,” but now indicates something “unnecessarily intrusive, meddlesome, or uncalled for.”

Who was this clever author who has tracked down etymological changes of the pejorative kind? I endeavored to find something out about Maxwell Nurnberg. I approach “found” authors with enthusiasm, always looking forward to reading more of their work. I was started—and sad—that my first hit on the ‘net was an obituary in The New York Times, dated December 14, 1984.

But I did find some cool facts out about Maxwell Nurnberg: He sat cross-legged on his desk while teaching students at Abraham Lincoln High School. He was head of the English Department from 1930 until his retirement in 1966. He hosted a radio show called “What’s the Good Word” in the forties. Post-retirement, he wrote about words, publishing in magazines and books–a dozen books to his credit.

Born in Poland, he immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was three years old. They settled in the Bronx where he grew up. He graduated from City College in 1919 and began teaching immediately after that.

I bet that there are many students who would call him their favorite English teacher, as I would call Mr. Agol mine. I’m sorry to have discovered Mr. Nurnberg’s work so late, but…happy to have his book in my hand, a meaningful edition to our collection.

O is for the Oxford English Dictionary…and So Am I

The only person I know who owns a full set of the Oxford English Dictionary is Ara Taylor, a writer who handles Course Reserves at the Whatcom Community College Library.

When, in 1977, her parents asked her what she wanted for graduation, she said—because of her exposure to the dictionary in an etymology class at the University of Wisconsin—”The OED!”

She got it alright, but instead of the 20-volume set, she received the compact two-volume version, with print so microscopic that a magnifying glass was included. Thirty-two years later she was able to buy what she really wanted: the full set for $25 (!) at a library book sale.

Ammon Shea ordered his volumes because he planned to read the entire 21,730 pages. He describes what happened the day his books came.

My Oxford English Dictionary arrives at 9:27 one Monday morning brought by a deliveryman who is much cheerier than I would have expected anyone carrying 150 pounds of books up a flight of stairs to be.” —Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages

From Shea’s descriptions of the books on page one, I knew that he’d be a whimsical, imaginative reader/writer: “They are all dust-jacketed in dark blue, with a regal and chitinous gloss, resembling the covering of some beautiful and wordy beetle.” What a leap of imagination it takes to liken book covers to the hard shells of insects, or, to quote one of the more poetic lines of the OED directly,”carapaces of crustacea.”

Shea has been reading dictionaries since he was ten years old, and in 2007 he began the ultimate eye-straining, headache-producing, and happiest task of his life. Here’s the last paragraph of Reading the OED:

“I had hoped that within its pages I would find everything I had ever looked for in a novel: joy and sorrow, laughter and frustration, and the excitement and contentment that is unique to great storytelling. The OED exceeded all of these hopes and expectations. It is the greatest story I’ve every read.”

I expected a book based on reading a 20-volume collection of words to be heftier than 223 pages, especially since Ammon said “If you are interested in vocabulary that is both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless, read on, and enjoy the efforts of a man who is in love with words. I have read the OED so that you don’t have to.

I’m glad for the brevity of his volume because it’s unlikely that I’ll learn even the meanings of the words Shea has included. I’ve become acquainted with Jehu, n. A reckless driver; Tardiloquent, adj. Talking slowly; Inspirado, n. A person who thinks himself inspired. Iatrogenic, adj. Pertaining to symptoms caused unintentionally by a doctor; Elozable, adj. Readily influenced by flattery.

Shea’s book is organized alphabetically, with amiable explanatory text introducing and/or interspersed in each section. He can’t resist calling the Introduction an Exordium

OED definition: The beginning of anything; esp. the introductory part of a discourse, treatise, etc.; ‘the proemial part of a composition’ (Johnson).

 and the Bibliography, an Excursus

OED Definition: Latin word is used by editors of the classics to signify: A detailed discussion (usually in the form of an appendix at the end of the book, or of a division of it) of some point which it is desired to treat more fully than can be done in a note.

I love the OED, which is why my wife gave me an online subscription for Christmas, but I’ve never thought of it as a “story.” He’s convinced me. Listen to what these other writers have said:

  • “No really serious writer should be without an OED...Nothing else comes close.”—David Foster Wallace
  • “I’m told that when Auden died, they found his OED all but clawed to pieces. That is the way a poet and his dictionary should go out.”—Frances Steegmuller
  • “All the raw material a writer needs for a lifetime of work.”—Annie Proulx

Walter Isaccson’s idea comes closest to my feeling: “The OED is not only a wonderful tool for a writer, it’s also an inspiration and joy. I feel invigorated whenever I plunge into it.”

In an effort to learn more about Shea, the author whose book I plunged into and from which I found inspiration and joy, I went to the website listed on the book jacket: http://www.AmmonShea.com. Keying in that address with or without capitals resulted in access to Ammon Shea, Insurance advisor, an unlikely career transfer for a writer who has supported himself as a furniture mover in New York, a gondolier in San Diego, and a street musician in Paris. Can that really be him?

One thing for sure: I’ll read more books by Ammon Shea.

P.S. I saw a complete set of the 1989 OED at a Half Price Bookstore. I’m tempted. I wish it weren’t twenty times what Ara Taylor paid for hers