Front Matter Friday

Friendly Guides and Well-Traveled Roads

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The WNWDAL

I missed “Scripture Sunday.” I missed “Text Tuesday.” I even missed “Word Wednesday.” I’m a bad person. I have a good excuse, though: I got a job! I will not, however, let gainful employment stand in the way of Front Matter Friday (FMF). In fact, I’ll even give it to you a day early because the workplace gods have smiled upon me and I have the day off.

This week’s installment of FMF comes from my favorite general dictionary: Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (World Publishing Co. 1966). I’m not really sure why I prefer this dictionary to the others at my disposal. I suppose it’s a lot of little things, such as the layout, the typeface, the fact that it never let’s me down, etc. However, now that I’ve read the dictionary’s “Foreward,” I know why it’s editors think it’s the bees knees. Here’s what they have to say*. As usual, my comments on the text follow.

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Foreward
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition

As this edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary is being prepared to go to press, the editors are systematically including in the plate proofs the death dates of recently deceased notables, new terms and senses resulting from the latest technological advancements, and such other challenges and additions as last-minute developments make necessary.

This final gesture in the interest of up-to-dateness is a rather symbolic one, a logical extension of the lexicographic principles that have guided the editors in the preparation of this work. For just as historical and scientific concepts refuse to remain fixed, unyielding entities, so too a living language will not permit itself to be immutably pinned down1. The excellent dictionaries of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson and Nathaniel Bailey, remarkable thought they were in their days2, have little more pertinence for the present-day reader of the New York Times that the alchemical writings of Roger Bacon have for a nuclear physicist.

EMWardDrJohnson
Johnson in some knucklehead’s anteroom.

Not only could the earlier dictionaries have no knowledge of dilantin, snorkel, betatron, cortisone, ACTH, cybernetics, and vibraphone, but they would be of no help uncovering the meanings of extrapolate, parking meter, iron curtain, cold war, simulcast, and hot-foot. Moreover, even those senses of words that have continued currency from the time of Dr. Johnson to the present are in the earlier dictionaries defined in a language that falls strangely on 20th century ears3.

Recognizing that modern lexicography is a disciplined science, [the scholars and editorial workers who compiled this dictionary] were nevertheless determined to avoid the dogmatism that led Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce to define dictionary as “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.4” This dictionary was not create the impression that it was authoritarian, laying down the law about usage; it was to play, rather, the role of a friendly guide, pointing out the safe, well-traveled roads.5

Abierce
Bierce

Webster’s New World Dictionary … is neither an abridgement nor a revision of some earlier work. It is a new dictionary in which every definition has been written afresh in the simplest language consistent with accuracy and fullness.6

In choosing the words to be entered and defined, the editors used as their criterion the frequency of occurrence in contemporary American usage and in readings generally required of college and university students insofar as it could be determined. As a result, the dictionary contains over 142,000 vocabulary entries, more than any other comparable American desk dictionary. All entries are arranged in a single alphabetical list, so that there is no need to leaf through numerous supplements and prefatory lists, as well as the dictionary proper, to find such entries as Isaiah, Charlemagne, Atlantic, John Bull, viz., F.O.B., OHG., a priori, and coup de grace.

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Commentary:

1) It’s true, living languages keep growing. New words are added all the time and some even end up in a dictionary.

2) Legend has it that, in 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson with an idea about creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. A contract with William Strahan (Scottish printer and publisher) and associates was signed on June 18, 1746. Johnson’s dictionary was not the first, but it was the most commonly used and imitated for the 150 years between its first publication and the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.

Bailey was the author of several dictionaries, including his Universal Etymological Dictionary, which appeared in 1721. His Dictionarium Britannicum (1730 and 1736) is said to be the primary resource mined by Johnson his dictionary.

3) It’s true. To get an idea of what the writer is speaking about here, check out this definition of “raccoon” from Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, which I included in a previous post about the name of the animal.

4) I looked but I couldn’t find any other snarky snaps about dictionaries from commentators like Bierce. I did however, find a few comments that shed some light on why Bierce wou have such a toxic take on these tomes. As Jonathon Green writes in Chasing the Sun,

The task of lexicography might, when viewed with the jaundiced eye, entail a good deal of drudgery, but like even the lowliest of parish priests, its practitioner remained the guardian of the sacred truths, the conduit that delivered them to the unversed masses.

Green also includes the thoughts of British poet and writer Rod Mengham, who notes that, in the 17th and 18th centuries:

The compiling of a dictionary … entailed an exercising of authority on an unprecedented scale. The lexicographer would determine what be included in, and what should be excluded from, a body of knowledge that the pragmatic user of his work would learn to regard as the foundation of the national language and culture…. The dictionary could become an instrument of social control, dispensed indirectly and fostering assumptions that need not be insisted on too forcibly.

Clearly, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump these ideas about lexicographers to prescriptivism.

5) This paragraph references, once again, the ongoing debate over prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries; that is, whether dictionaries ought to prescribe how the words in English ought to be used rather than describe how the words that comprise the English language are being used. The former (prescriptivists) are seen by their opponents as stodgy, anal-retentive types who fear the debasement of the language and (by extension) the decay of the social fabric, while the latter (descriptivists) are seen by their opponents as lacking in standards and guilty of shirking their duties as guardians of our remarkable tongue. (For more on this, see the link above and Kory Stamper’s Word by Word).

This is not to say, however, that there isn’t a “third way.” Think of it as a middle-of-the-road approach that allows lexicographers to stay abreast of the new terms making their way into the lexicon, while still calling attention to the more traditional uses or, at the very least, pointing out which words are best suited for particular situations (i.e., maybe don’t use “ain’t” in court or while defending your dissertation), hence the notion of “pointing out the safe, well-traveled roads.”

6) As referenced in the previous installment of Front Matter Friday, dictionary publishers are out to make a buck, which is why their editors go to great lengths to let folks know how their dictionary stands out from the lexicographical herd. Hence the editor of this volume making it known that this is indeed a “new dictionary” and not a previous release dressed in a new jacket, that the words this “college edition” contains will likely be encountered by actual college students, and, of course, that it is simultaneously authoritative and easy to use. More of this commercial speak can be found in these old-timey dictionary advertisements.

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* Naturally, the Foreward is long and I’m not about to key-in the entire piece. If you’d like to read it in it’s entirety, check it out.

Front Matter Friday

From Bleak Compendium to Agreeable Companion

b494bb4e4c5e06dac49fbe5d63709bd00fab0a77If digging into the definitions and etymologies of words for mere shits and giggles wasn’t enough of an advertisement for my uncoolness, consider this: I like to read dictionary introductions. I know what you’re thinking. “What’s the matter, Joe, can’t find any golf to watch on the TV?”

Point taken. Admittedly, dictionary introductions can be rather dull affairs. Every so often, though, I come across one so full of attitude, opinion, and (dare I say) snark, that it deserves to be the subject of its own post. Hence the following (and first!) installment of “Front Matter Friday,” a new feature on The Butter Lamb offering  excerpts from dictionary introductions … err … on Friday, along with some commentary by yours truly. Yup, Friday just got better!

This week’s installment comes from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969). Not only does this introduction demonstrate the editors’ passion for dictionary authorship and general word nerd-ism, but it also contains some interesting ideas and phrases that reveal the editors’ beliefs about 1) the role dictionaries ought to play in society and 2) their competition in the book-seller’s marketplace.

Enjoy.

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Introduction:
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969)

… At a time when the language, already a historical melting pot, is under constant challenge1—from the scientist, the bureaucrat, the broadcaster, the innovator of every political stripe, even the voyager in space—the [editors of the American Heritage Publishing Company] undertook to prepare a new dictionary. It would faithfully record our language, the duty of any lexicographer, but it would not, like so many others in these permissive times2, rest there. On the contrary, it would add the essential dimension of guidance, that sensible guidance toward grace and precision which intelligent people seek in a dictionary3. They will find it here, in a dictionary that is in many respects a notable departure from previous British and American lexicographical practice.

To many people, the dictionary is a forbidding volume, a useful but bleak compendium, to be referred to hastily for needed information, such as spelling and pronunciation. Yet, what a dictionary ought to be is a treasury of information about every aspect of words, our most essential tools of communication. It should be an agreeable companion. By knowledgeable use of the dictionary we should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of meaning are today, and its social status4.

[…]

A major concern of the editors has been the language used in the word definitions themselves. Our aim has been to phrase definitions in concise, lucid prose. Here, too, we have undertaken to eliminate “dictionary shorthand”—the frustrating signs, symbols, and abbreviations that are commonplace in other dictionaries5. Except for a few obvious abbreviations (n. for noun, v. for verb, and the like), we have followed a policy of spelling out all definitions. Where necessary to clarify a meaningful or idiomatic usage, the editors have included an example, either quoted from literature or staff written. We have also eliminated the meaningless lists of undefined compound forms which serve, in many American dictionaries, merely the purpose of inflating the so-called “entry count.” 6

[…]

… A primary aim of our staff has been to make this dictionary as readable as we possibly could. We editors know that dictionaries can be fascinating7. Working closely with them day by day, we see the vast amounts of interesting information that many users are not aware of, usually because it is hard to work one’s way through the thorny underbrush of conventional sign language to find the treasure that lies buried in the entries. It is our earnest hope that, by presenting our dictionary in inviting and readily readable fashion, without any lessening of authority8, we will encourage the reader to explore and enjoy the riches of our remarkable tongue.

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Webster's_ThirdSome Thoughts:

1) I was struck by this notion that “the language …  is under constant challenge.” For editors of a dictionary, challenge is interesting word choice. Save for the use of euphemistic language, which obfuscates, language isn’t being “challenged” by words from scientific and other fields, it’s expanding.

2) The use of the phrase “these permissive times” is a bit of an elbow in the ribs referral to the Webster’s Third International Dictionary  (1961), which was considered by some in the dictionary world to be too (you guessed it) “permissive” in that it didn’t instruct readers in the use of “proper English.” Chief among Webster’s 3rd’s no-nos was the inclusion of the word “ain’t” (the horror). This gets us to the ongoing debate over prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries; that is, whether dictionaries ought to prescribe how the words in English ought to be used rather than describe how the words that comprise the English language are being used. The former (prescriptivists) are seen by their opponents as stodgy, anal-retentive types who fear the debasement of the language and (by extension) the decay of the social fabric, while the latter (descriptivists) are seen by their opponents as lacking in standards and guilty of shirking their duties as guardians of our remarkable tongue. (For more on this, see the link above and Kory Stamper’s Word by Word).

3) Following up on the preceding note, the gist here is that the dictionary ought to provide “sensible guidance toward grace and precision,” (read definitions that are accurate and socially acceptable), which is what intelligent people (read: discerning people wary of such permissiveness) want.

4) Do words have “social status”? Yes. This is why most dictionaries let you know if a certain use of a word is considered “archaic,” “obsolete,” “informal,” and the like. This is also a reference to the hub-bub over Webster’s third, which critics chastised for “eliminating the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper,” “improper,” “erroneous,” “humorous,” “jocular,” “poetic,” and “contemptuous,” etc.

5) Is “dictionary shorthand”—the signs, symbols, and abbreviations that are commonplace in other dictionaries—really “frustrating”? I suppose. Of course, most dictionaries that use such abbreviations include a key or guide to these abbreviations in the front. It seems to me that if you took a second to look up a word in a book, you can take another to look up the meaning of an abbreviation. I mean, it’s right there….

6) Do dictionary publishers really try to “inflate” their “entry counts.” In a word, yes. Or at least they have. For proof of this, check out old-timey dictionary advertisements that boast about the number of entries a dictionary contains. Stamper’s Word by Word has more on this too.

7) “We editors know that dictionaries can be fascinating.” This is word nerd-ism pure and simple, and I love it.

8) This sentence, “presenting our dictionary in inviting and readily readable fashion, without any lessening of authority,” demonstrates the dictionary maker’s dilemma. In addition to making a sideways reference to the whole permissiveness thing (see above), dictionary publishers worked hard to balance the commercial considerations of making a text that was both “authoritative” and “inviting.” This is less of a problem nowadays with digital (or online) dictionaries, but for publishers back in the day, it was real concern. Hence the use of images/illustrations and other graphic design techniques to make such large books more inviting. [Note: I didn’t include it here, but other parts of this introduction mentions the editors’ “fresh approach” that incorporates “the most recent advances in typographic design and printing.” – Ed.]

Know Your Words · Word Wednesday

Not This Crude Matter

George_Stubbs_-_A_Comparative_Anatomical_Exposition_of_the_Structure_of_the_Human_Body_with_That_of_a_Tiger_and_a_Co..._-_Google_Art_ProjectAbout a month ago, while doing something stupid, I damaged a ligament in my left shoulder and tore my bicep. It was a serious injury and, although I didn’t have to have surgery, I’ve been dealing with the fallout from this accident ever since. In doing so, it’s made me think about Yoda’s famous claim that we are “luminous beings, not this crude matter.” I agree with him (he’s a 900 year-old Jedi master after all), but there’s no getting around the fact that the flesh is something with which we must deal each and every day. But what is this thing we refer to as our flesh? Our skin and cartilage? Our ligaments, muscles, and tendons? All of it combined except our bones? And where does the word come from, given it’s so different from the other words — body, guts, innards, etc. — we use to refer to our crude matter? Let’s find out! Welcome to Word Wednesday.

Leaving aside the “soft, pulpy substance of fruit or a plant,” or the “muscular tissue, or tissues generally of animals, regarded as an article of food,” Flesh, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “soft substance, especially the muscular parts of an animal body; that which covers the framework of the bones and is enclosed by the skin.”

The Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (Dorset and Barber) and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language say the same … and by that I mean, exactly the same, even the part about the fruit. (See the Kory Stamper’s Word By Word for more on plagiarism in dictionaries.) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers similar verbiage as well, but adds that the word is typically reserved the … um … flesh of vertebrates, and that it is distinguished from “internal organs, bone, and integument (aka: something that covers or envelopes, such as skin). Even the medical dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves offer the same definition.

There seems to be similar consensus regarding the word’s etymology, too. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says flesh comes from the Old English word flaesc, which is Germanic in origin and related to Dutch vlees and German fleisch. The Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) agrees, but adds a little more color, noting that, “The etymological notion underlying flesh, and its near relative flitch ‘side of bacon’ [Old English], is of ‘slitting open and cutting up an animal’s carcase for food.'”

Expression_of_the_Emotions_Figure_1The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology hits these same notes, but calls into question the part about bacon by noting, “(modern) German fleisch … is possibly related to Old Icelandic flesk, swine’s flesh (bacon), through Old English flaec, though this form is considered an inaccurate or dialectical spelling by the [Oxford English Dictionary].” Partridge’s Origins offers a different take on the swine thing and says flesk is an Old Norse word for bacon AND pork, but the author provides himself an out by adding the abbreviation “o.o.o.,” meaning “of obscure origin,” at the end of the entry.

Okay, so now that we’re all up to speed on the meaning and etymology of flesh, you can go ahead and forget it because, in the words of the master, you’re not that crude matter.

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Postscript:

Although all my dictionaries seemed to be in agreement about the definition of flesh, Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (1940), includes information about the colors one might encounter while examining the flesh of food animals. I thought you might get a kick out of it … or maybe find it useful … so I’ve included it here.

Yellow: May be produced by food. In disease due to biliary compounds.
Brown: Rare, except in old meat undergoing decomposition.
Dark Purple: May indicate animal has died a natural death, suffered from acute
fever, tuberculosis, or rinderpest. Avoid.
Dark Reddish-Brown: May indicate animal has been hunted or overdriven,
poisoned, drowned, or suffocated. Avoid.
Scarlett: Rare. Indicates arsenic or monoxide poisoning.
Green or Violet: Indicates the beginning of putrefaction. Dangerous.
Saffron: Indicates artificial coloring or smoked pork.
Brilliant Red: Due to poisonous bacteria.
White: Rare, except in calves. Found in certain diseases. Avoid.

This shit could save your life. You’re welcome.

Know Your Words · Text Tuesday

Text Tuesday: Wicked Words

0925180847In the past few months, I’ve added at least 50 new books to the SDCL’s collection and some of them are real gems. To highlight these terrific texts, I thought I’d create a new feature on The Butter Lamb: Text Tuesday. Welcome to the first installment.

This week’s text is Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson (1989). That’s a long title and it’s a subtle indicator of the wordiness one finds between its covers. That’s not a complaint, for in addition to being rightly described as a “treasury” (defined in one sense as “a collection or supply of excellent or highly prized writings, works of art, etc), the book should be treasured for its breadth and thoroughness. (The entry for fuck is 10 nearly 10 fucking pages!)

The one part of the title I might quibble with, though, is the word “unprintable.” Yes, some of the words in the book certainly were unprintable at one time. Some still are. I’m not sure, however, if that descriptor applies to every entry in the book. There are plenty (e.g., cad, cadger, cannon fodder, carpetbagger, cesspool, charlatan, cult, etc … and that’s just the words that begin with C!) that don’t seem all that wicked and/or offensive.  Then again, I could be wrong. Maybe cad was an unprintable and wicked word back in the day. What do I know?

Speaking of the words, Wicked Words does a fine job of listing “all the classic disparaging terms” for men and women, people of particular nationalities, and those (un)fortunate enough to have a denigrated occupation. Or, to put it another way, Wicked Words contains all of the classist, racist, and sexist terms your chud of an uncle uses on Thanksgiving after he’s had one too many bottles of Michelob. This is NOT what makes the book shine. What does is Rawson’s scholarship. To see what I mean, check out the following excerpt from the book’s introduction:

The messages conveyed by “bad” words are of three types: the profane, the obscene, and the insulting. Each represents a different form of abuse. Profanity abuses sacred belief: it is irreligious, by definition and by origin, coming from the Latin pro (before, outside) + fanum (temple). Obscenity abuses the body, the temple of the self: It derives from the Latin obscenus, probably from caenum (filth). Obscenity includes pornography, from the Greek skatos (dung, shit) + logy (the science or study of). Insult abuses other individuals, typically in terms of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, political persuasion, sex, mental abilities, or physical peculiarities. It comes from the Latin insultare (to leap upon).

Damn. To paraphrase Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, “Bet you’ll never look at insults the same way again.”

Any knucklehead can put together a list of blue or naughty words, and then offer a clumsy, haphazard definition for each. Rawson, thankfully, takes the time to give his readers so much more: rich definitions, etymologies, and examples of usage from literature, news sources, and more. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Check out the following entries of some words that, while maybe not (or no longer) “wicked,” were at least new to me.

Note: I’m just offering brief snippets here. To see the entries in their entirety, check out the book.

Clinchpoop. A boor. (This 16th century term of contempt is obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.) In theory, clinchpoop probably should be reserved for drunken mariners and other seagoing boors.

Gascon. A braggart, one who indulges in extravagant boasting. This is an ethnic slur, alluding to the inhabitants of Gascony in southwestern France. They were regarded as great boasters from at least the 18th century.

Goth. A rude, uncivilized person, especially one who goes out of his way to destroy artworks and other hallmarks of high culture. The Goths, a Germanic people who descended on the Roman Empire in the early part of the Christian era, were divided into two main branches, the East Goths, or Ostrogoths, and the West Goths, or Visigoths. See also Barbarian and Vandal. [Note: Rawson says nothing about people who dress in all black, listen to sad and dour music, and are obsessed with finality and death.]

Hockey (hocky). Variously: semen, excrement, nonsense. The origin of this term is not known; it may come from hokum. If its meaning of nonsense really is the original one, then hockey is an exception among words of this sort, which ordinarily evolve in the opposite direction. Hockey seems fairly euphemistic, nevertheless, it has been tabooed in some square circles, especially in the southern United States.

Mossback. An extreme conservative or, as an adjective, one who acts that way. The epithet first appeared as mossyback during the Civil War when it was applied to the Southerners who fled in the woods or swamps to escape conscription into the Confederate Army. Some of them seemed to have remained hidden so long that moss grew on their backs.

Pelican. An old car or jalopy, a big eater or glutton, a tough woman or prostitute. The last sense is the least common and may have been limited to New Orleans, the largest city in the Pelican State.

Otto_van_Veen_-_Xantippe_Dousing_Socrates_-_WGA24347
Xanthippe and Socrates

Runnion (ronion, ronyon). An old insult for a woman that warrants revival if only because no one is sure exactly what it means. Lexicographers have more or less thrown up their hands at this. The Oxford English Dictionary simply calls it “an abusive term applied to a woman.” Samuel Johnson treated the different spellings as different words, defining ronion as ” a fat bulky woman” and runnion as “A paltry scurvy wretch.”

Tout. An aggressive purveyor of frequently erroneous information, especially at a racetrack; as a verb, to solicit or to sell in a pushy way. The word is underworld slang from the 18th century (a tout originally was a lookout) and it has never escaped its seamy origins.

Xanthippe. A bad-tempered woman, a scold; from the name of the wife of Socrates, who got such bad press from ancient writers that her name became generic for “shrew.” [Ouch – Ed.] It has been suggested that 1) because of Xanthippe, Socrates didn’t really mind having to take hemlock, [Again, ouch – Ed.] and 2) the poor woman may have been driven around the bend by having a philosopher for a husband.

 

Do you know of a reference text I should feature on Text Tuesday? Is there one from the SCDL’s collection that you’d like me to feature in a future installment? Let me know!

Know Your Words · Scripture Sunday

The Good and Bad of Ambition

Today in church, we were treated to a reading from the Book of James (chapter 3) that began with these lines:

Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.

735px-Paradise_Lost_25This got me thinking. Isn’t ambition a “good” thing (read: socially approved)? In our fame-obsessed, money-hungry, and power-mad culture, ambition is celebrated and deemed an asset. (E.g., It’s no surprise Amanda is a success, she’s always been such an ambitious young lady.) Moreover, why does James qualify his use of the word with the adjective selfish. Is there another kind of ambition that’s more generous or kind?

To answer these questions, I compared the definitions of ambition in the oldest and most current dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves to see if the word’s meaning had changed over time. In the oldest, Donohue’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1914), ambition is defined as “desire of preferment or power,” which to my ears, sounds somewhat negative and not too flattering.  Yet, interestingly, the same text defines ambitious as “aspiring,” which has a much more positive ring to it.

In the SDCL’s most recent dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2003), ambition is defined as 1. an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power  2. the object of ambition (e.g., her ambition is to start her own business) 3. a desire for activity or exertion (e.g., I feel sick and have no ambition.). Obviously, these definitions provide a more complete picture of the word’s positive and negative aspects. However, once again, the text’s definition of ambitious, “having a desire to achieve a particular goal: aspiring,” is rather affirmative.

In a search for more information about this word and how it’s used, I turned to the etymological dictionaries. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (ODWH):

Ambition came via Old French from Latin, ambitio(n), from ambire “to go around” (as in to go around canvassing for votes). The related late Middle English word ambitious is from Old French ambitieux or Latin ambitiosus, from ambitio(n). The sense progression in Latin moved from going round generally, to going round to canvass votes, to seeking honor, to ostentation, and finally to keen desire. The sense “desire for honor” was adopted first in the modern languages.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology agrees with with the ODWH’s assessment, as does the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, but the latter adds this beneficial little nugget:

When the word was first borrowed into English, via Old French,  ambition, it had distinctly negative associations of ‘greed for success,’ but by the 18th century it was a more respectable emotion.

Penguin Dict of ProverbsThat helps, but perhaps the best overview of ambition‘s duality can be found in the Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs, which offers a list of sayings celebrating ambition‘s “value,” warning of its “dangers,” and cautioning “against over-ambition.” I won’t list them all (there are a lot of them), but here are a few samples from each category.

Ambition’s Value:

  1. Ambition makes people dilligent
  2. He who aims for the moon may hit the top of the tree; he who aims at the top of the tree is unlikely to get off the ground.
  3. Nothing crave, nothing have
  4. He begins to die that quits his desires
  5. Hitch your wagon to a star.

Ambition’s Dangers:

  1. Ambition loses many a man.
  2. He who opens his heart to ambition closes it to repose.
  3. Desire has no rest.
  4. Every ambitious man is a captive and every covetous one a pauper.
  5. High places have their precipices.

Against Over-Ambition:

  1. Better be first in a village than second at Rome.
  2. Seek that which may be found.

 

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PS.) In the interest of thoroughness, it’s worth noting that Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary contains a definition of ambition too: “an overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.”

Know Your Words

Pardon the Delay ….

pocket ed
This “vest pocket” edition of the New Webster’s Dictionary (approx. 3 by 5 in.) is one of many new texts in the SDCL’s collection.

Greetings Friend:

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on this site. I apologize. That said, it gives me great pleasure to announce that good things are happening behind the scenes here at the Smith Dictionary Collection of Laurel!

Chief among them is that I’m getting closer to opening our doors to the public. Well, they’re actually open now, should anyone want to stop by for a visit, however, this is something of a “soft rollout.” In the near future, I’ll be shouting about our existence from the rooftops and (trying) to put ourselves on the map in all sorts of creative ways.

I’m also happy to announce that the SDCL’s collection has been growing by leaps and bounds! Over the past several months we’ve added more than 50 dictionaries to the collection on topics ranging from so-called “wicked” words and the Old West to bookmaking and modern warfare. I’ve also filled in (what I refer to as) the collection’s “chronological” holes and procured some specimens that reflect some of the past currents in the history of dictionary publishing. Even better, I’ll be adding a new feature to the site wherein we showcase some of these thrilling tomes so our readers can appreciate them as much as I do!

Finally, because I’ll be making more of a ruckus about the SDCL’s existence, I’ll be posting a lot more often on a wider range of subjects. Hopefully, this will give folks interested in coming by a better idea of the books and information they’ll find here.

Stay tuned!

Know Your Words

The Origins of Nightmare

vamp-booksI used to have this recurring dream:

I am in my middle school library, sitting a large table in the back of the room, far from the circulation desk. The table’s surface is covered with large books, all of which have the same brown covers, like those you’d find on bound volumes of periodicals or academic journals. I am going through the books one by one and, aside from the librarian — a woman who looks a lot like the kind-hearted old woman who served as the librarian at my grammar school — there is no one else in the room.

Being the only student in the library doesn’t bother me. I am focused on the contents of the books, which I’m going through page-by-page. I’m looking for a specific bit of information. What that information is I don’t know, but there’s the sense that I’ll know it when I find it.

Suddenly, the lights go out and the nice old librarian turns into a ghoulish vampire who really want to bite me. Stricken with terror, but able to keep my wits about me, I (somehow) know that the only way to get the lights back on and make the librarian return to her old self is to get the book I’m currently looking at into the book-return slot at the circulation desk. Because I’m at the far end of the library, and there is a veritable sea of other tables and study carrels between me and the circulation desk, the room becomes something of a maze. The tables aren’t much of an obstacle, but the carrels are tall and hard to see around, which the librarian/vampire uses to her advantage.

Nevertheless, I keep moving, making my way toward the circulation desk. The vampire is stealthy and quick, but always seems a step too slow. However, knowing that doesn’t diminish my fear. I make it to the desk and slide the book through the return slot. The lights come back on and the librarian becomes a human again. Relieved, I saunter back to my table, sit down, and begin going through another book. Then, just when I’m finally able to relax, the lights go out again….

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Nightmare 2It’s been some time (20 or more years!) since I’ve had this dream, but I’ll never forget it. I would wake up trembling, covered in sweat, and breathing heavily. Given this physical reaction and the sense of terror the dream produced, I’ve always referred to it as a nightmare. Recently, however, I learned that word — nightmare — used to mean something very specific, and it didn’t involve looking through books at a library.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a nightmare was originally defined as “A female spirit or monster supposed to beset people and animals by night, settling upon them when they are asleep and producing a feeling of suffocation by its weight.” (The OED cites the first use of the term to be around 1290.)

Obviously, the term has evolved from this very specific definition, but if you read more modern definitions closely,  it’s clear some residue from this early definition remain. For example, OED’s second definition for nightmare reads: “A feeling of suffocation or great distress felt during sleep from which the sleeper vainly endeavors to free himself; a bad dream producing these or similar sensations.”

Similarly, the definition of nightmare in Donohue’s Standard New Century Dictionary of 1914 (the oldest 20th century dictionary in the SDCL’s catalog) states: “A feeling of suffocation during sleep, accompanied by intense horror; some oppressive or stupefying influence.” Likewise, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2004) offers the following:  “A frightening dream, often accompanied by sensation of oppression or helplessness.”

Suffocation, oppression … indeed, the Latin root of oppression, oppressus, means to squeeze or suffocate. Thus, the spirit may no longer get a mention, but its presence lingers.

Nightmare Etymology

The etymology of nightmare is more forthcoming, however. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories traces it back to Middle English, noting that the term “initially referred to a female evil spirit thought to lie upon and suffocate sleepers; it’s based on night (Old English neaht, niht is Germanic in origin, related to Dutch nacht and German Nacht) and Old English maere ‘incubus’.”

As usual, the Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) offers a slightly different take.

The mare of nightmare is not the same word as mare, “female horse.” It comes from Old English maere, which denoted a sort of evil spirit or goblin, which sat on sleepers’ chests and gave them bad dreams. That is what the compound nightmare meant when it emerged in the early Middle English period, and the metaphorical application to the bad dream supposedly caused by this incubus is not recorded until the mid-16th century.

Putting aside the mention of goblins (?), it’s clear from the OED that the first appearance of this “metaphorical application” is recorded long before the 16th century … assuming you agree that 300 years is a long time.

But wait, there’s something else going on here …

NightmareAlthough I have no reason to doubt that the Old English word maere refers to “an evil spirit” or “incubus” — indeed Eric Partridge notes much the same in his etymological dictionary of modern English, Origins (he traces incubus to Old English mara) — I think it’s worth pointing out that, according to the Dictionary of World Folklore, an incubus is a masculine evil spirit, or to be more precise: “a demon in the form of a man who visits the beds of sleeping women to have intercourse.”

This is significant because, as noted in the initial definition of nightmare from the OED, it specifically mentions a female spirit or monster. The female version of the incubus, according to the Dictionary of World Folklore, is a succubus, and it’s guilty of the same nighttime shenanigans, only with men instead of women.

Other definitions of succubus report the same. By way of example, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language defines succubus as, “(in folklore) a female demon thought to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men.”

How strange then that there would be a gender-based anomaly between the word’s etymology and its original meaning. I suppose it’s possible that “incubi” is some sort of catch-all term for these male and female demons. Interestingly enough, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language doesn’t specify a gender to the demon in its definition incubus (like it does for succubus).

Nightmare Indigestion

Whatever the reason behind this shift from female to male might be, I am aware of one book — On the Nightmare (published in 1951 by Ernest Jones, M.D.) — that seems hell-bent on giving credit where credit is due.

The word nightmare … was more particularly used to denote a female night-fiend, night hag, or as she was also called, a night-wytche. The word … comes from the Anglo-Saxon neaht or nicht (=night) and mara (=incubus or succubus). The Anglo-Saxon suffix a denotes an agent, so that mara from the verb merran, literally means ‘a crusher,’ and the connotation of a crushing weight on the breast is common to the corresponding words in allied languages…. From the earliest times the oppressing agency experienced during sleep was personified, more often in a female guise; it was depicted as being either extremely attractive or else extremely hideous.

All of this work on Jones’ part may be for not, however. Despite his exhaustive etymological efforts, it seems more recent texts don’t even mention the gender of these nightmare-causing evil spirits at all.

61aS-s3RljLFor example, in the Webster’s definition from 2004, one of the entries reads, “Folklore An evil spirit believed to haunt and suffocate sleeping people.” The same can be said for psychological references, such as the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, which you would think might have some interest in the history of the word.

Nightmare 1) A terrifying or extremely upsetting dream or, figuratively, an event or experience resembling such a dream. 2) An evil spirit believed to torment and suffocate sleepers. [From night + Old English maere, an evil spirit or incubus]

It’s as if the authors just assume people know what an “incubus” is (or trust their readers will look it up). One finds something similar between the covers of the Psychiatric Dictionary (Campbell), which, although it contains an entry for nightmare, doesn’t even mention the term’s origins. It merely describes the experience of the phenomenon and what such a bad dream might mean in regard to one’s insecurities. Borr-ring.

Sadly, even Teresa Chung’s Dream Dictionary from A to Z, a book brimming with intriguing insights about the activities, creatures, and objects that populate our dreams, steers clear of the nightmare’s fabled origins. Instead, she picks it up in the 19th century, when:

Many people … still blamed nightmares on indigestion; it was only with the publication of Freud’s ideas that they became seen as the expression of unfulfilled wishes and sexual anxiety. Jung described them as part of humankind’s “collective unconscious” and said the helplessness we feel in nightmares is a memory of the fears experienced by primitive peoples. Today, most dream interpreters believe these disturbing dreams are sent to warn the conscious mind that something is being blocked or ignored.

Chung’s book doesn’t even include entries for incubus or succubus. Lucky for her — and us — Jones’ book more than picks up the slack. In addition to incubi and succubi, he goes on to discuss the (psychological) relationship between the nightmare and a hist of other figures, including the Devil, vampire, werewolves, and witches. He does not, however, mention anything about vampires working in libraries.