The Only Person I Know Who Owns the OED

A few weeks ago I blogged about the Oxford English Dictionary and I mentioned Ara Taylor as the only person I know who owns the print version of the OED. Is there anyone else out there with sagging shelves containing all twenty volumes?

Ara was prompted to use the OED a few decades ago when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (UW-SP) and took a class from Professor Leon Lewis whom she remembers vividly:

“He looked leonine, with a full mane of long black hair, and he paced like a lion in front of his blackboard. His delivery was rapid fire, like a slightly more focused Robin Williams. He had a dreadful way of keeping our attention. He’d spin around suddenly, point directly at one of us, and spit out ‘You! Present us the etymology of the word “x” by tomorrow.'”

This technique was not well received. Half of the class dropped out. Ara stayed. She described herself as “insulted,” when he commanded her to track down the word tic-tac-toe, but off she went to the library and its copy of the OED. That was the beginning of her obsession (that’s my word, not hers, and meant as a compliment) with the OED which led her to request it for a graduation present.

She’s used the OED throughout her life “in every way possible: as fascinating reading material. I’d open to a random word, which often led me on a hunt for related words. Sometimes for hours.” Also, “to deepen my writing” and to “inspire ideas.” She’s even used volumes to fetch books that were out of reach, give height to a chair, as ballast (she didn’t say for what!), and as a leaf press.

Professor Lewis required students to have an hour-long session with him, which accounted for 25% of their grade. Here’s how Ara described her experience:

“He was sitting at his desk when I entered and abruptly asked, ‘So, how do you like me?’ ‘I don’t,’ I replied. He rose from his desk, extended his hand, and said ‘Thank God! Congratulations!'”

She reflects: “Maybe I was the only student who’d ever been honest, but from that point on we had a wonderful if feisty instructor-student relationship.It wouldn’t be a stretch to say  I loved that man.” Ara got an A in the class.

Lewis retired from UW-SP in 1994 and moved to Whidbey Island. Described in his obituary as a “charismatic teacher” and “an artist in the classroom who used provocative wit and comic improvisations to illuminate his main passions: word and language,” I think he would be pleased that he spurred one student’s life-long interest in words.



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?


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.

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.

D is for Detective

D is for Detective, as in The Word Detective (2016) by John Simpson. I’d save this book for the “W” entry, but it’s due at the library and another word-hungry reader wants it.

The book’s subtitle is “Searching for the Meaning of it all at the Oxford English Dictionary.” How many of us have been at a dictionary? The author, who worked on the OED for forty years, is referring to the physical headquarters at Oxford University, at one point described as “gloomy corridors…the office mirrored the sort of work we were doing.”

In 1976, John Simpson, a graduate student finishing up a master’s in Medieval Studies, became a cub lexicographer, ultimately assuming the role of chief editor and overseeing the 1989 update and online version. The OED was first suggested in 1857, editorial work began in 1879, and a final 10-volume edition was published in 1928. Simpson articulates his love for the job in the first chapter.

There have been many accounts of the dictionary’s history, but very few (if any) have managed to capture the excitement of the job––the fact that each day you are uncovering small but significant facts that have been almost entirely forgotten often for centuries and you have the opportunity to bring them back to the surface. The thrill of discovery, like the elation of a well-rounded definition, is almost like creating a poem.

His first task was to update the entry for “queen,” which began as the Anglo-Saxon word cwen. His process for providing new historical information and usage was to collect index cards in the basement of the building, gather additional information from books in the department’s reference library on the first floor, and write definitions in his office on the ground floor.

Hundreds of employees worked on the update. The process of hiring them is different than I imagined:

…Lexicographers veer as far away as they can from people who claim to love words. What is the point of loving words and at the same time expecting to analyze and classify them?” In the process of hiring people, Simpson asserts, “So how do we weed out these word lovers?” By giving them an exam, or, he says, “you just look around the room and see ho is left-handed and you appoint them. It’s a scandalous approach for a professional, but it’s backed up by real data.

 I love the OED, acquainting myself with the 20-volume print edition at the Whatcom Community College Library, the University of Southern Maine’s online version, and learning the book’s crazy history from Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. I missed electronic acesss when I completed my MFA degree, but my wife bought me a year’s subscription last Christmas and also showed me a review of The Word Detective in Christian Century, my current favorite OED book.

 Simpson’s favorite book about the OED is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea, published in 2008. Simpson says Shea’s book “starts to bring the dictionary to life in a way that almost all other books about dictionaries fail to do.” I’ve placed a hold at the library for that title and Shea’s Bad English: A history of Linguistic Aggravation.

 If you pick up a copy of Simpson’s book, you might go to chapter 9 entitled “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,”

 Eleven pages of the 34 pages in “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,” is about the f-word, but I didn’t get a subscription to the OED or Simpson’s book so that I could focus on the OED’s category of “coarse slang.” Or did I? J Check out tomorrow’s blog, E for Elucidation