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: 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



David Bukszpan on N

See the picture of the waggish character to your left? He’s David Bukszpan, the author of Is That A Word? subtitled From AA to ZZZ, the Weird and Wonderful Language of Scrabble®, published by Chronicle Books in 2012.

I lifted the photo from Ohio State’s Department of English. Wouldn’t it be fun to make up definitions for his name — and doesn’t he look like a fun person to get to know? The Department’s website lists him as an MFA Student in Creative Writing. He also has office hours, so he must be doing some teaching.  Although this is his first book, he already has an impressive resume. He’s written for the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and websites for Harpers, The Paris Review, and the Economist’s Intelligent life.

He has some fascinating chapters and sidebars, like this one: The Ten Most Important (i.e. highest scoring Two-Letter Words). Here they are, so you’re ready for your next game: Zat: pizza; Qi: the central life force in traditional Chinese culture; Jo: a sweetheart; Ox: a large mammal [hey, we knew that one, at least!]; Xi: a Greek letter; Xu: a monetary unit of Vietnam; Ka: the eternal soul in ancient Egyptian spirituality; and Ki: the life force in traditional Chinese culture.

And now, I’m going to get around to N and I’m going to let Mr. Bukszpan write this blog for me by quoting one of his sections. First, he defines the words, and then he writes a sentence with them. Here we go:

  • Neap: a tide halfway between high and low tides
  • Netop: a buddy
  • Neatnik: a compulsively neat person
  • Naif: a naive person
  • Nett: to net
  • Nekton: any free swimming aquatic animals (in contrast with plankton)
  • Ness: a headland
  • Linn: a waterfall (also lin) [I don’t understand why an “L” is in the list….]
  • Nth: describing an unspecified number of a series
  • Nada: nothing

His sentence is: “At neap, my netop--a neatnik who’s a naif–tried to nett nekton from the ness by the linn for the nth time. Gain: nada.”

For a hilarious, though too long, book trailer about his book, watch this video!

If you have a basic interest in words, even if you’re not a Scrabble® I recommend Is That a Word?  The style is breezy, the illustrations amusing, and along the way, the reader learns the art of  “Unscrambling Scrabblish.”



M: From Makatu to Memory

I searched the ten-page M-section of Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words (See my blog on Philavery here) to find a blog-suitable word.

Blog-suitable means that a word must glimmer, a concept I borrowed from my wife Amory’s experience at a worship service. The leader placed stones, stamped with words like tenderness, humor, guidance, and embrace, on an altar. She asked the participants to choose a word that glimmered, a word that seemed to contain a message for them.

We have both adopted glimmer as an indicator for word choices in writing. Amory says that some words shout, others whisper, some hide, others beckon.

I like a word that changes my expression, generating a tiny, but irrepressible smile. I like a word discovered late at night, one I can take to bed with me, and awake to in the morning with anticipation of what I might find out about it. I like a word that beckons.

As evening drew to a conclusion, I copied down sixteen words and their definitions from Mr. Foyle’s collection.

Makutu, n., coming from New Zealand and Polynesia, refers to a magic spell—just what I needed to advance my writing. Marc, n., besides being a possible Scrabble word, is the residue of left-over skins and stems from pressed grapes that can be used to make brandy—grape skin, an ingredient for alcohol, who knew?! Mendaciloquent, adj., refers to telling lies, speaking falsehoods—with multiple applications in the current political climate.

Then there was Murcous, adj., lacking a thumb with a story behind it. Murcous comes from the Latin murcus, meaning truncated or mutilated, and used to describe those who eliminated a thumb in order to avoid military service. Mneme, n. (the ability to retain a memory of past experiences…and to transmit them to future generations) got to me because of its weird pronunciation: the “m” is silent and the word, pronounced ‘nee-mee,’ sounds like ‘creamy.’

Any of these words could support an archeological dig into their lexicography, but in the morning I decided on a more common word, a simple word–a word not even on Foyle’s list, a word that did not glimmer, a worthy word, but not blog-worthy by my definition.

In his journal written in 1827, Sir Walter Scott described a person: “No dash or glimmer or shine about him, but great simplicity of manners and behavior.” I think his definition can apply to words too.

The word I will explore (but not here!)  is memory, a simple word having manners and good behavior. Memory is one of the 2017 Kumquat Challenge words. Every year since 2007, the Library at Whatcom Community College has sponsored a poetry-writing contest for Poetry Month. Tami Garrard, Sally Sheedy, Ara Taylor, and I, members of the library’s marketing committee, chose ten words and invited the campus community to use them in a poem. We produced a thin volume of 25 poems. Ara Taylor has again invited submissions from those connected to the college. For guidelines check here.

Looking back at the very first Kumquat Challenge, I was amused to find that one of the ten words was….glimmer. Despite the fact that I needed an M-Word for this column, glimmer was the word that beckoned.

L is for Lambert…without a capital

One night when my wife and I were propped up in bed, playing Words with Friends™, the online version of Scrabble™, I found that the seven letters in my hand, ALRTMEB, spelled my married surname: Lambert.

I’ve always thought proper names were not allowed in Scrabble, although I have stumbled on a few like joe and barb and drew, but lambert?! Check out this OED definition: Lambert: a unit of luminance equal to one lumen per square centimeter (equivalent to approximately 3180 candelas per square.

Ok, but what’s a lumen and what’s a candela? The origin of lumen is Latin, meaning light: an opening, and a candela (what a lovely sounding word!) is a unit of luminous intensity.

To further illustrate the definition of lambert, the OED, as usual, includes quotations. In 1915, P.G. Nutting wrote in Electrical World, “I prefer to speak of a brightness of so many ‘lamberts.'”

Well, you get the picture. Having produced seven Lamberts from my very own womb, I like to think of a “brightness of so many lamberts.” Never mind that Nutting was not referencing my children.

The lambert was named after Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728-1777), a Swiss German scientist, the son of a tailor, and largely self-educated in astronomy, physics, and philosophy. In addition to working on the measurement of light, he developed theories on parallel lines and on π (pi). Along with Immanuel Kant, with whom he corresponded, he was among to first to recognize that spiral nebulae are disk-shaped galaxies like the Milky Way.

And now, I have an admission to make. I would have no acquaintance with the eighteenth-century genius J.H. Lambert and the derivation and meaning of my surname if I weren’t a cheater.*  That’s right. My wife and I play Words with Friends™ on our phones. Right next to our phones, our laptops which are tuned to WEG—Win Every Game—which allows players to type in their letters and receive word choices to use. We both have the same handicap. We look up almost all the weird new words we encounter and then we use what’s left of our brains to make strategic word placements.

WEG part of my self-education. For example, besides lambert, the letters ALRTMEB, can make ambler, lamber, armlet, marble, blamer, ramble, labret, and tramel. Ambler, armlet, marble, blame, and ramble are familiar, but I had to look up labret (a labret is a lip ornament made of a small piece of shell, bone or stone), lamber (yellow amber), and tramel (a long narrow fishing net.)

I don’t anticipate using any of those words in conversation unless someone (hopefully none of my children) sports a lamber labret. Tramel might be more likely, although I never heard my former husband, who fished for a time, use the term.

P.S. Some years ago, we found out that John Lambert, the children’s great-grandfather, ran away from home and changed his name. Shortly before he died, he revealed that his real surname was Lambries. His family of origin was/is in Wisconsin. One of my sons, his wife, and their four children have changed their name to Lambries. They are still bright lights.

* Disclaimer: If I play Scrabble™ or Words with Friends™ with anyone besides Amory, I don’t use WEG. Ever.


There are 387 words that the Merriam-Webster Official Players Dictionary lists aas proper nouns and therefore used in Scrabble or Words with Friends. You can see the list of acceptable proper names here

K is for Kansa, Konza, Kanza, and Kaw

Way back on day #7 in G is for George, I mentioned my great grandfather whose parents permitted him to enlist in the Kansas Light Artillery in1963 when he turned sixteen. I’ve made two trips to Kansas to visit the towns where he and my ancestors lived, to search out their headstones in cemeteries, and to absorb a landscape that was in the bones of my forbearers, but foreign to me. There are stories to be learned and told, and background to bring into my being.

In Topeka, I saw the bronze Kanza warrior atop the state capital dome. In books, I found anecdotes about the Kansa in Ghost Towns of Kansas and Faded Dreams: more Ghost Towns of Kansas by Daniel Fitzgerald. The word Kansa kept coming up.

Spellcheck immediately produced squiggly red underlining and suggested that I might want Kinas, kanga, Kansan, Kansas, or Kwanza. Kinas and Kanga, words unknown to me, could turn on my rabbit hole research switch, but I really do mean Kansa. The OED knows that. When you insert Kansa into the search box, you’re immediately taken you to a definition: “A Siouan Indian people formerly of Kansas and now in Oklahoma; also known as KAW. n. a member of this people; the name of their language. If you look up Kansas, however, it takes you to Kansa. Way to go OED!

Kaw came from the Sioux word aca, meaning Southwind. These native Americans were known as “people of the Southwind.” French traders and other Europeans called them Kanza or Kansa. Kansa became the dominant tribe, and the tribe from which the state gained its name.

No diaries or letters are extant from my great-grandfather. I do not know if he served with any people of the Southwind. I do know, from records in the national archives that seventy Kaw men enlisted in the Kansas Calvary and twenty-one of them died.

Here’s a more positive story about the most famous Kansa tribe member of all: Charles Curtis (1860-1936). Charles was three when his mother, one quarter Kansa Indian, died, but he spent his early youth with the Kaw Indian tribe. In 1868 Cheyenne warriors attacked the Kaw Reservation. One of the Kaw tribe, an interpreter named Jojim took off on horseback to ask for help from the governor. Charles, eight years old, rode with him: 60 miles! Curtis grew up, became a jockey (no wonder! what an experience), was admitted to the bar in 1881, and practiced law in Topeka was elected to the House of Representatives, then the Senate. He became Republican whip and majority whip. He became the 31st vice-president of the United States in1928, serving with Herbert Hoover.

Now I know a smidgen of Kansa history—and have no way to tie it to my grandfather, the impetus for this post.It’s not quite enough to say that my great grandfather lived in Topeka, that he too was Republican, and that he ran for local political office, but lost.

I never know where a single word will take me—sometimes a little off the track. The last fluent speaker of Kansa died in 1983. The last full-blooded Kaw died in 2000, but the tribe, based in Oklahoma continues, and their impact on Kansas remains.



*PHOTO CREDIT for Kanza Indian Warrior Topeka: CHRIS MURPHY

Background information on the Kansa Tribe

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.