Reference News Roundup! (vol. 2)

Don’t look now, but dictionaries are cool again. (And yes, this is a terrible graphic!)

Greetings Papercutters! It’s Sunday, so that means it’s time for a little RNR (aka: Reference News Roundup)!

I know, the RNR is supposed to be on Friday, but I posted something else last Friday, so I thought I’d do it now. Besides, let’s be honest … it really doesn’t matter.

Anyway ….

As mentioned last time, this is not intended to be an exhaustive list of reference and reference-related news from the past week. Rather, the items contained herein are those that struck my fancy and/or say something important about our world and the role reference books play (or should play) in it.

Not mentioned last time, because I didn’t include them, are two fun reference factoids that are not related to the week’s news, but still kinda fun and interesting nonetheless: a symbol of the week and an allusion of the week.

With that, I’ll say thanks for tuning in and, if you feel like discussing any of the contents below, leave a comment and we’ll chat!


PS) If you like what we’re doing here, link to it, share it on your channels, or tell your peeps the old-fashioned way and talk to them (or send a note via the trained bird of your choice).



Move Over, Wikipedia. Dictionaries Are Hot Again
New York Times

“Dictionaries are not regarded as sexy or interesting, but what dictionaries are known for is telling the truth,” said Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and past president of the American Dialect Society. “Right now there are a lot of questions about what is true. We want clear statements about what things are, and dictionaries provide that.”

[By the way, this item is our News Item of the Week!]

How the Word ‘Terrorism’ Lost Its Meaning
CBC News

Terrorism is political invective, nothing more. It’s a great favorite of demagogues, widely accepted by audiences, and is almost always applied exclusively to the other, never to ourselves.

Merriam-Webster Adds New Words
Times-Tribune (Scranton)

In addition to elevating “surreal” in 2016 to word of the year, the dictionary company on Tuesday added about 1,000 new words and new definitions to existing listings on its website,

Additional articles on this matter. The first does a good job of putting this news about Merriam-Webster’s additions in some sort of context:

Merriam-Webster Keeps Up with the Times

To maintain any usefulness in the modern age, the dictionary cannot be only an archive of traditional language. It must be a living, breathing document that changes with the times.

Check Out Which Sports Words Have Been Added to the Dictionary
Dayton Daily News

Since we can’t be bothered to learn the real words for things anymore, Merriam-Webster has made a regular habit out of adding new ones to the dictionary to make things easier. The latest crop is out, and it includes a few from the world of sports.

‘Plyscraper’ Named Word of the Year Finalist

Among the lesser-known finalists in Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year choices was the word “plyscraper,” which has been spawned from a building typology with growing popularity around the world.

II. And Now for Some Stuff that Wasn’t in the News:

From the A Dictionary of Symbols

Symbol of the Week

Anchor: A sign of Hope for “Boatloads” of Christians

In the emblems, signs and graphic representations of the early Christians, the anchor always signified salvation and hope. It was often shown upside down, with a star, cross or crescent to denote its mystic nature.

– A Dictionary of Symbols

Attribute of various sea gods — because the anchor symbolizes a ship’s only stability during a storm — it is a symbol of hope, especially in Christian symbolism (appearing frequently on grave stones and coffins), and a symbol of consistency and fidelity. It was used as a secret symbol (anchor cross) in early Christianity by the addition of a crossbar.

Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols


Allusion of the Week

Halcyon Days

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions defines “halcyon days” as calm, peaceful days, a happy golden period; prosperous, affluent times.

Halcyon is the Greek name for the bird we know as the kingfisher. The ancient Greeks believed the bird nested at sea at the winter solstice and calmed the waves while it incubated its eggs. This halcyon period lasted 14 days.

There is an explanation in Greek mythology, of course. Halcyon was the daughter of of Aeolus, god of the winds. She was married to a mortal who died at sea, and threw herself into the ocean to be near him. The gods changed them both to kingfishers–it is unclear whether this was an act of compassion or anger.

There’s only one problem with this explanation. According to both the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art and the Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology, it seems Aeolus’s daughter was named Alcyone, not Halcyon.

Going Round and Round with Saturn

[Note: My original intent for this post was simply to show some of the cool art that adorns the various dictionaries and other books in the ARL’s collection under the heading of “The Art of the Dictionary.” Unfortunately, I got carried away and ended up writing a full-blown post on a hopelessly intriguing figure who’s shrouded in mystery: Saturn.]

Credit: Dictionary of Symbols

Not long ago, when I was suffering through what I can only call a dark time, I turned to more than a few of the books in my library to find some answers as to what might be happening and why. (I tried a shrink too, but the books were more useful.) One of them that left a “mark” was Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, which has a chapter with the rather curious title, “Gifts of Depression.” Within that chapter is a section bearing the sub-heading, “Saturn’s Child,” which contains sentiments like this:

… There was a time, five or six hundred years ago, when melancholy was identified with the Roman god Saturn. To be depressed was to be “in Saturn,” and a person chronically disposed to melancholy was known as a “child of Saturn.” […] These melancholic thoughts are are deeply rooted in Saturn’s preference for days gone by, for memory and the sense that time is passing. These thoughts and feelings, sad as they are, favor the soul’s desire to be both in time and in eternity, and so in a strange way, can be pleasing.

In traditional texts, Saturn is characterized as cold and distant … Saturn was also traditionally identified with the metal lead, giving the soul weight and density, allowing the light, airy elements to coalesce…. As we age, our ideas, formerly light and rambling, and unrelated to each other, become more densely gathered into values and philosophy, giving our lives substance and firmness.

For whatever reason, these words of Moore’s have stuck with me and I’ve become a little obsessed with this notion of a sort of “god of melancholy.” So, naturally, I dug into the reference section of my library to learn more about this god of yore and to see if what Moore had to say about him was accurate.

What I found, not surprisingly perhaps, were differing myths surrounding Saturn and a rich symbolic history that seems to contradict the myths without completely destroying the somewhat tenuous, yet highly visible thread that weaves its way through and unites them all.

Credit: Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature

Here are a few excerpts demonstrating both those contradictions and unifying themes.


Saturn symbolizes time, with its ravenous appetite for life, devours all its creations, whether they are beings, things, ideas or sentiments. He is also symbolic of the insufficiency, in the mystic sense, of any order of existence within the plane of the temporal, or the necessity for the “reign of Cronos” to be succeeded by another cosmic mode of existence in which time has no place. Time brings restlessness–the sense of duration lasting from the moment of stimulus up to the instant of satisfaction. Hence Saturn is symbolic of activity, of slow, implacable dynamism, of realization and communication; and this is why he is said to have devoured his children and why he is related to the Ouroboros (or the serpent which bites its own tail). Other attributes are the oar (standing for navigation nad progress in things temporal), the hourglass and the scythe. In the scythe we can detect a double meaning: first, its function of cutting parallel to and corroborating the symbolism of devouring; and, secondly, its curved shape, which invariably corresponds to the feminine principle. This is why … Saturn takes on the same characteristic ambiguity of gender and sex, and is related to the earth, the sarcophagus and putrefaction, as well as the color black…. Saturn is in every case, a symbol of the law of limitation which gives shape to life, or the localized expression in time and space of the universal life.

A Dictionary of Symbols

A very old Italian god identified with Cronus. He was said to have come from Greece to Italy in very early times, when Jupiter dethroned him and hurled him from Olympus. He established himself on the Capitol, on the site of Rome, and founded a village there, which bore the name of Saturnia. The reign of Saturn was extremely prosperous. This was the Golden Age. Saturn taught people how to cultivate the ground…. He was depicted armed with a scythe and his name was was associated with the invention of viticulture. He was, however, sometimes considered as a god of the underworld.

Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology

[Speaking of his reign in Italy …] Men lived like the gods, without care, in uninterrupted happiness, health, and strength; they did not grow old; and to them death was a slumber which relieved them of their present nature and transformed them into daemons. The earth yielded every kind of fruit and gave up all its treasures without cultivation or labor. Under the reign of Saturn, men lived a life of paradise.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature

Heresy? I Don’t Believe It …


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier today, I came across an article with the headline, “Is Trumpism a Heresy?”

“It could be,” I thought to myself, but it depends on a few things. First, what the hell is Trumpism? (This “alternative-word” presumes he’s capable of developing coherent system of thought.) Second, heretical in what context? To the constitution? To the nation? To Christianity?

Given the nature of the publication (a Catholic news website that goes by the name The Crux), I assumed the writer meant heretical to Christianity. Thus, I assumed the answer to the question posed in the headline was, “Yes.” (I mean, how could it not be?)

Trumpism and politics aside, though, what really got me thinking was that word heresy. Soon after I put my eyes on it, I realized that, after a lifetime of church-going and rubbing elbows with Christians of various types (and intensities), I really didn’t know what that word meant.

If forced to define heresy at gunpoint, I would say something along the lines of a philosophy that ran contrary to or afoul of some core teaching in any number subject areas including, but not limited to, a particular set of religious teachings. As it turns out, this is just the tip of the heretical iceberg.

Before I get into that, though, how about I start with some etymology, which in this case, lays a nice foundation for a proper understanding if the word. Given that preamble then, let’s start with the Oxford Book of Word Histories, which says of heresy:

This comes from Old French heresie, based on Latin haeresis ‘school of thought,’ from Greek hairesis ‘choice’: this same word in ecclesiastical Greek meant ‘heretical sect.’ The base verb is haireomai ‘to chose, take for one’s self.’ Heretic is Middle English from Old French heretique, via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek haeretikos, ‘able to choose.’

As I’m always interested in a second opinion on this sort of thing, I turned to the John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins (often a contrarian book in its own right) to see what it had to say. To my mild surprise, it largely agreed with its Oxford-ian ilk, but its entry for heresy also includes the following:

A heresy is a choice one makes … [and] … this was applied metaphorically to ‘a course of action’ or ‘thought which one chooses to take,’ hence to a particular ‘school of thought,’ and ultimately to a ‘faction’ or ‘sect.’ The word passed into Latin as haeresis, which early Christian writers used for ‘unorthodox sect or doctrine.’

flagellentOkay, so I was wrong about the there being a place for heresy outside of religious realm. I know it’s used this way haphazardly from time to time (You don’t like Cheetos?!? Heresy!), but, clearly, the religious roots of the word are undeniable. However, as noted by the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (ODCC), heresy was more than just the harboring of “wrong” or “unacceptable” beliefs or philosophies, it also included simple theological mistakes, be they intended or not.

In antiquity the Greek word denoting choice or thing chosen, from which the term derived, was applied to the tenets of particular philosophical schools. In this sense it appears in occasionally in Scripture and the early Fathers. But it was employed also in a disparaging sense and, from St. Ignatius onward, it came more and more to be used of theological error.

So what’s the difference between espousing a non-kosher philosophy and making a boneheaded theological error? Well, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, it could mean the difference between excommunication and a disapproving wag of the finger. Hence the distinction made in current Roman Catholic teaching, which according to the ODCC, makes a distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘material’ heresy.

The former, which is heresy proper and so called, consists in the willful and persistent adherence to an error in matters of faith on the part of a baptized person; as such it is a grave sin involving excommunication. ‘Material heresy,’ on the other hand, means holding heretical doctrines through no fault of one’s own, ‘in good faith.’ … This constitutes neither crime nor sin, nor is such a person strictly speaking a heretic, since, having never accepted certain doctrines, he or she cannot reject or doubt them.

Seems fair, right?

Now about that headline that started this whole thing. Maybe the answer to the question it poses is not yes or know, but, “Does he know any better?”

It’s, Like, Totally “Existential”!

skeleton-endIf you’re a news junky like I am, you’ve no doubt noticed an uptick in the use of the word existential, as in such and such a thing is an “existential threat,” by commentators of various stripes and political persuasions. No doubt this increase is the result of America’s decision to install a mad man as president, but as the following results from a (very) quick search of Google news suggests, the range of people and things to blame for or facing “existential threats” (or “existential risks”) is quite wide.

Farmers and landowners are experiencing existential threats
“Agricultural property tax increases are becoming an existential threat to family farmers and rural land owners in Ohio.”

Trump’s views on immigration pose an existential risk
“Trump’s hard-line views on immigration pose existential risks [to the restaurant industry].”

Climate Change is an existential threat to the international community
“The reality of climate change is not up for debate, and its consequences must not be either. As a country, we face the choice of denying this existential threat.”

Refugees have been called an existential threat to the United States
“No one should expect refugees to be admitted should they pose an existential threat to a nation.”

And finally,

Balan music faces an existential threat from Pop Music
“With the increasing popularity of folk songs and modern pop and R& B music, the ancient Balan musical culture is facing an existential threat.”

Given the global reach of American cultural exports, I don’t doubt that interest in Balan folk music is on the decline, but is it really correct to say that it is facing an existential threat? To find out if there is was any guidance on using the word, I did what few folks are willing to do these days: I consulted a dictionary!

According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, the word existential (which is derived from existentialis, the Late Latin word for existence) means “of or based on existence.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in almost the same way: “of or pertaining to existence.”

Okay, seems like these dictionaries are kind of phoning it in here, but no big deal. I get it: the term existential pertains to existence. However, if this is true, then the converse must also be true, which means that if existence is NOT on the line — that is, if thing A is not causing the demise of thing B, or if thing B is not at risk of extinction due to the presence of thing A — then the use of the word existential in such contexts amounts to little more than hyperbole and really ought to be dialed back.

With this in mind, let’s revisit our examples!

1) While agricultural property taxes may indeed put farmers out of business and compel landowners to sell off their acreages, it’s unlikely that they will end these peoples’ existence.

2) Do Trump’s views on immigration pose an existential risk to the restaurant industry? Given that, as the article points out, “The industry’s kitchens are filled with immigrant workers. And many immigrants start their own restaurants, sometimes bringing tastes from their original country to new audiences,” it easy to see how thy could have a negative effect and even lead to the closure of some restaurants. But will they bring about the end of the industry? I doubt it.

3) Is climate change is an existential threat to the international community? Given that it could submerge some island nations (e.g., the Marshall Islands) lead to more intense storms and more costly weather-related disasters, the threat is certainly real. But will it wreak havoc on the international community and break bonds between nations? I don’t have a crystal ball, but it could. Thus, I’d say existential threat just might fit here.

4) Are refugees an existential threat to the United States? No.

5) And finally, does Pop Music pose an existential threat Balan music? Nope. Sure, it could lead to (further) decreases in it’s popularity, but will it wipe it off the musical map? Probably not.

Existential and Existentialism

This guy knew a thing about living, its fulfillment, and predicaments.

In all fairness, of course, the use of existential isn’t always intended to be so over the top (even though it sometimes comes off that way). More often than not, the word is used to convey significant or irreparable change and/or damage to the essence of something (i.e., a farmer’s way of life, the restaurant industry, or even the United States). This brings us to the relationship between the words existential and existentialism, the philosophy that focuses on the sometimes fractious relationship between existence and essence.

Of the philosophical dictionaries in the Anachronist Library’s Collection, only one — the Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy (HCDP) — has an entry for existential. It reads:

[In existentialism] 1) The vivid experience of the reality and varied dimensions of the present. 2) The awareness that one IS and that one is an acting, choosing being creating and experiencing one’s self-identity. 3) The experience of being intensely involved in living, its fulfillment, and its predicaments.

And while all the others contained definitions for existentialism, only two others discussed existence in a way that seemed to mesh with the discussion of the word existential presented here.

For example, Anthony Flew’s Dictionary of Philosophy notes that, “Existence is basic: it is the fact of the individual’s presence and participation in a changing and potentially dangerous world.”

Similarly, A.R. Lacey’s Dictionary of Philosophy opines, “A feature of human existence, for existentialists, is that men are active and creative while things are not…. men are conscious of the contrast between themselves and things, and their relations with other men, of their eventual deaths, and their power to choose to and to become what they are not.”

Clearly, in most if not all of the articles above, the authors were not writing about the end of something’s existence so much as the reality of living in a changing and potentially dangerous world.

Reference News Roundup

newspaper-peepsGreetings Papercutters! It’s Friday, so that means it’s time for this week’s Reference News Roundup.

I know, this is the first one, so you didn’t know that Fridays and round-ups of reference news were linked. Well, they are, or at least they will be on most Fridays around here. So if this is your kind of thing, read on and, of course, tell your friends.

Note: This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of reference and reference-related news from the past week. Rather, the items contained herein are those that struck my fancy and/or say something important about our world and the role reference books play within it.

Thanks for tuning in and, if you feel like discussing any of the contents below, then leave a comment!



I. Current Events

The OED is thinking about adding a batch of Trumpisms

The Oxford English Dictionary is considering fast-tracking a host of new Trump-related words into its hallowed pages.

Dictionaries Are Tracking Trumpian Word Usage To Update The English Language Accordingly

How much power does an American president have? Enough, apparently, to issue executive orders considered unsound by ethicists. And enough to alter the language we use, as evidenced by dictionary updates centered on heads of state past and present.

Dictionary Searches for “Betrayal” Spike After Spicer’s Comments on Sally Yates Firing (!)

After the White House press secretary refused to define the word, Merriam-Webster responded with a lengthy definition.

Many looked to the dictionary for help on Tuesday to define “betrayal,” a word that played a large part in White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s news conference about the firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

Merriam-Webster gets a little bit cheeky

If dictionaries are supposed to be dry, and to the point, Merriam-Webster has officially broken the mold.

Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account has delighted the masses in the last few years by jumping into hot-topic issues with a dosage of the truth — or the definition at least.

We covered this in our first post. Check it out. (More articles on that page.)

II. Enclyclopedia News

Oslo Bookshop’s Fundraising Encyclopedia Draws Starry International Contributions

A “subjective encyclopedia”, described by its creators as a “freak of publishing nature” designed to save a struggling Norwegian bookshop from closure, has proved a hit after a host of well-known names including Jarvis Cocker, George Saunders and Jonathan Lethem contributed entries.

The Inner Workings of Wikipedia

Fifteen years ago, the idea of a free, digital encyclopedia, compiled and edited almost entirely by volunteers, and available at no cost to everyone, seemed like an idealistic fantasy. Today, Wikipedia offers millions of articles in hundreds of languages, and continues to grow every day. And it is easier than you might think to contribute to that growth.

They were once a pinnacle of science, and now they’re almost gone: Are encyclopedias obsolete?

Today, encyclopedias are almost forgotten for all but a small number of nostalgics. Bookshops are rarely selling them anymore, old bookshops aren’t valuing them anymore, and even charities have a hard time giving them away.

Into the history books: Encyclopedias virtually ‘worthless’
They were once a huge investment for the family home and a vital part of any school library, but encyclopedias have now passed into history and can barely be given away.

All I’m going to say about these encyclopedia are worthless articles is that I used one for yesterday’s post.

III. New Additions, Words of the Year, and the Like

How ‘heaty’ and ‘cooling’ made it to the Oxford English Dictionary

Cultural concepts, such as words used to describe the nature of foods in traditional Chinese medicine, are now part of the English language.

Dumpster Fire, Brexit, Fake News

Started in 1990 by a small group of linguists, Word of the Year has spread like a video of an anarchist punching a Nazi that’s been set to music.

HSP enters dictionary

The rise in popularity of the Halal Snack Pack (HSP) has seen the fast-food item voted Macquarie Dictionary’s people’s choice word of the year for 2016.

IV. Slang and Newly Coined

Merriam-Webster and the ACLU finally settle the ‘woah’ vs ‘whoa’ debate

Merriam-Webster and the ACLU have teamed up to solve a long-running spelling debate: is it spelled “whoa” or “woah”?

The Dublin dictionary: 19 slang terms you need to have in your life

If you’re struggling to understand co-worker from Tallaght, or you just want to brush up on your Dublinese, here are some of our favourite phrases in translation.

V. History

Calamity, a name and a disaster

Several versions are given on the origins of calamity. Many dictionaries say of this word “a disaster”. If we go back far enough, we find that the word comes from the Latin calamitas. My Macquarie says it refers to great trouble, adversity, misery or a great misfortune or a disaster.

Historian Gerald Smith Shares Favorite Tales From The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia

University of Kentucky’s history professor and Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar in Residence Gerald L. Smith with colleagues, professor emeritus at Kentucky State University Karen Cotton McDaniel and professor of history at Western Kentucky University John A. Hardin published a 550-page tome of historical treasures, The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, in 2015.

Survival and preparedness dictionary

If you are new to the preparedness or survival mindset you may come across a lot of terminology and acronyms that you aren’t familiar with yet. Don’t be discouraged. The purpose of this article is to list some of those survival and preparedness terms and define them for you.

Happy Candlemas Marmot Planting Day!

It’s Groundhog Day (or at least it was a few minutes ago), and unless you’ve been living in a burrow of your own for some time, you know gist: if the rodent sees its shadow, we have 6 more weeks of winter. If it doesn’t, then we can look forward to an early spring. Easy peasy.

Ah, but do you know the origins of this rodent-centric holiday?

You can’t tell me this isn’t a strange annual event. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to J. Allen Varasdi’s Myth Information, this bizarre American ritual reaches back to the old country … and its resident badger population.

The popular legend surrounding the groundhog, also called a woodchuck, developed in Europe with 16th century German farmers. However, in Germany, the story originally  was based on a badger. But, when German settlers arrived in Pennsylvania, there were no badgers, so the groundhog, being the closest animal in the area in appearance to the badger, was substituted in the story.

As for the story, the version Varasdi offers in his book is a little different from the one with which most of us are familiar.

According to folklore, if the groundhog sees its shadow, it will be frightened and return to its den, indicating another six weeks of winter. Farmers would then know to delay their spring planting.

I know it’s subtle, but we seem to have dropped that part about the groundhog being “frightened” of his shadow. The way we tell the story nowadays, the groundhog seems rather indifferent to the whole seeing its shadow thing. We also don’t seem to dwell on the fact that this annual event has to do with agriculture. Maybe that obvious (I mean, why else would we care how long winter is going to hang around?), but if you ask me, our collective denial of the agricultural part of the story is yet another example of the just how far we American’s have strayed from our agricultural roots. (No, “agricultural roots” is not a pun.)

Okay, so what’s the significance of February 2nd.” Don’t worry, Varasdi has an explanation for that too.

February 2 happens to be about the time groundhogs emerge from their burrows after winter in the vicinity of Punxsutawney.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Varasdi had the market cornered on explanations of Groundhog Day. However, I can’t say that because there are other books that disagree with his account.

Credit: USFWS

Take for example the following excerpt from my Funk and Wagnell’s New World Encyclopedia (1972):

February 2 of each year, when according to rural American tradition, the groundhog (see Marmot) leaves the burrow where it has been hibernating to discover  whether cold weather will continue. If the groundhog cannot see its shadow, it remains above ground, ending its hibernation. If its shadow is visible, there will be six more weeks of cold weather and the animal returns to its burrow. Groundhog day falls on Candlemas, an old church tradition in which a pleasant Candlemas means a cold spring. [This] probably inspired the legend.

Whoa. Marmot? Hibernation? Candlemas? This is why I love reference books. You never know where this shit is going to go! But I digress….

Anyway, note the absence of the animal (whatever kind of rodent it is  … more on that below), being frightened by its shadow, as well as any suggestion that this annual event is affiliated with farming. As for Candlemas, I can’t seem to find anything in my collection that ties this religious ceremony to rodents. I did, however, find a text that links it to the February 2 and agriculture — The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature — which offers the following in its entry for Candlemas:

The ceremonies observed on this festival (which in the Roman Church is the celebration of the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary) are probably derived from the Februan or purification rites of paganism, which occurred on the same day. […] The Gentiles … devoted the month of February to the infernal deities because … it was in the beginning of this month that Pluto had ravished Proserpine. Ceres, her mother, had sought her through Sicily for a whole night by the light of torches…. In commemoration of this, they every year at the beginning of February, traveled the city during the night bearing lighted torches.

Statue of Ceres holding wheat.

I know … that was waaaay out there and probably begs more questions than it answers, but I included that excerpt here because Ceres, as you may know, was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain and crops. Thus, while that last excerpt was rather convoluted, at least it offers a connection to early February and agriculture.

Now, in regard to the groundhog and what kind of animal it is, the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins has this to say:

American settlers named the marmot, or woodchuck, the groundhog, perhaps because this member of the squirrel family burrows through the ground. Or, possibly, groundhog is a translation of the Dutch aardvark made by Dutch settlers in America, even though the South African aardvark, or earth hog, is a larger burrowing animal than the groundhog. The groundhog isn’t a hog then, but its other American name, woodchuck, is no more accurate for the animal doesn’t chuck wood. “Woodchuck” has no connection with wood at all, [and is] simply derived from the Cree Indian word wuchuk or otchock for another animal, the fisher, or pekan, which early settlers corrupted to woodchuck and applied through mistaken identity to the groundhog.

So who’s right in all of this? Who knows. My guess is that there are probably kernels of truth in all of these explanations. At the end of the day, all you can really say is, “Happy Candlemas Marmot Planting Day!”

Happy Anniversary OED!

oed-grabWhat up reference nerds? You may not know it, but today is a big day in lexicographical history!

According to, “On this day in 1884, the first portion, or fascicle, of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), widely considered to be the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary in the English language, was published.”

The website continues:

Plans for the dictionary began in 1857 when members of London’s Philological Society, who believed there were no up-to-date, error-free English dictionaries available, decided to produce one that would cover all vocabulary from the Anglo-Saxon period (1150 A.D.) to the present. Conceived of as a four-volume, 6,400-page work, it was estimated the project would take 10 years to finish. In fact, it took over 40 years until the 125th and final fascicle was published in April 1928 and the full dictionary was complete–at over 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes–and published under the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

As you know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of looking at one, the OED not only provides the common, present-day meanings of words. It also gives detailed etymologies and detailed chronological histories for every word or phrase contained between its covers.

Surely, working on the same project for 40 years seems like the very “definition” (heh, heh, heh) of commitment, but wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the OED was completed the editors began updating it! That effort continues today. Here’s a short history of its updates:

• A supplement, containing new entries and revisions, was published in 1933 and the original dictionary was reprinted in 12 volumes and officially renamed the Oxford English Dictionary

• Between 1972 and 1986, an updated 4-volume supplement was published

• In 1984, Oxford University Press embarked on a five-year, multi-million-dollar project to create an electronic version of the dictionary

• In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the dictionary was released, making it much easier to search and retrieve information

• Today, the dictionary’s second edition is available online to subscribers and is updated quarterly with over 1,000 new entries and revisions.

dic-defSo, in honor of this historic day, we’re going to celebrate the only way we know how: by digging into the definition and etymology of the word fascicle.

According to my compact OED, fascicle is defined as “a bunch or bundle,” and there’s a note saying the term is “now only in scientific use” (which could explain why I’ve never encountered it). In fact, it is such an archaic and/or specialized term that the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories doesn’t even have an entry for it.

Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological History of Modern English does, however. The entry reads (in part):

1. Latin fasces, a bundle of authoritative rods, plural of fascis, a bundle.
2. Latin fascis is derived from fascio, a bundle, hence a political group, whence both fascismo, hence Fascism (how timely!)
3. Intimately related to Latin fascis is Latin fascia, a band (as in a band of cloth), and fasciare, meaning “to wrap with a band.”

Now see, this is what I love about dictionaries! Who knew that a post celebrating the publication of the OED would introduce us to the origin of the word fascist? You can’t make this stuff up … but you can read about it.

Behold the power of dictionaries!

Can Trump’s Appeal Be Explained By Our Culture’s Preference for Extroverts?

Note: I wrote this for another (now defunct) blog of mine before the election. I thought I’d resurrect it here as I contemplate the meaning of our would-be emperor’s recently issued ban on Muslims … and why anyone would vote for such an individual.


“Western society is based on Greco-Roman ideals of the person that can speak well, a rhetorical ideal. We have always been to some extent a society that favors action over contemplation. But this really reached a pitch when we moved from an agricultural society into the world of big business. And that’s when it really became the case that to stand out and succeed in a company, with people that you had never met before, the quality of being very magnetic, very charismatic in a job interview suddenly became very important. This happened at the turn of the 20th century.”

These words of introvert spokeswoman Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, appeared in the Guardian in 2012, in an interview paired with the headline, “Society Has a Cultural Bias Toward Extroverts.”

But is that true?


I believe it is and in support of my assertion, I point to Exhibit A: Mr. Donald J. Trump.

Think about it: Ever since he appeared on the political stage, political pundits have been trying (hard) to explain why this man, who has no political experience and not bothered to formulate any detailed policy initiatives, is so friggin’ popular. Oh, there are theories: he’s telling people (aka: the “silent majority”) what they want to hear; he’s capitalizing on white middle-class resentment and anger; he’s the epitome of a political outsider … so on and so forth.

But I think it just might have something to do with introversion and extroversion. Whereas Obama, the introvert, comes off as thoughtful, measured, and cool. Trump, the extrovert, is always at the ready to shoot his mouth off, fly off the handle, and get hot under the collar. And while such traits might be something the average person would be asked to “work on,” they seem to play to Trump’s advantage.

How can this be?

Well, as Cain notes in the Guardian interview, America no longer has much need for the “strong silent type.” I know, the interview took place in 2012, and no one thought about Trump back then. Nevertheless, given his shocking success in the primary [ and even more shocking success on election night] and his near omnipresence in the media, you’ve got to admit that Cain’s assessment is right on.

“There are these cultural demands for men to be very dominant. But there are roles for introverted men: the strong reserved man, the strong silent type. I think especially in the UK, there is more of a place for dignified reserve. The U.S. used to have a place for that, but we lost it!”

This brings us to President Obama, a politician famous for his dignified reserve he spawned a character: Key and Peele’s “Luther: Obama’s Anger Translator.”  In addition, this past week, US News ran an op-ed by reporter Jamie Stiehm that asked, would Obama’s presidency have been different if he were extroverted?”

weird-french-guys“What [Myers Briggs personality] type would Obama be? I think he’s an INTP [an acronym for I (introvert) N (intuition) T (thinking) P (perception)] …. I’ve often thought about how how Obama’s presidency would have turned out if his temperament was more outgoing and gregarious, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson or the aforementioned [Bill] Clinton. All were Democratic presidents who knew how to wheedle, bargain, glad-hand, joke, rib and horse-trade.”

Trump’s personality has been documented in in the pages of our nation’s periodicals as well and, as you might expect, he’s portrayed much differently than our current Commander-in-Chief.  As psychologist Dan McAdams wrote in The Atlantic:

“Across his lifetime, Donald Trump has exhibited a trait profile that you would not expect of a U.S. president: sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness.

“Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (and Teddy Roosevelt, who tops the presidential extroversion list), Trump plays his role in an outgoing, exuberant, and socially dominant manner. He is a dynamo—driven, restless, unable to keep still.”

Did you catch the words McAdams used to describe the Donald in all his Trumpiness? “Outgoing,” “exuberant,” “dynamo,” “driven” … these words describe qualities to which most Americans aspire, particularly in the business world. In fact, this article from on the “13 Traits of an Outstanding Salesman,” features many of the same or similar terms. Coincidence?

I know, the people who support Trump can probably cite countless reasons they prefer him to Hillary — and I’m willing to bet that his being an over-the-top extrovert wouldn’t be in the top 100. Nevertheless, there is no denying, as the website wrote (echoing Ms. Cain in the process) :

“The Western world places a premium on extroverted behaviors such as gregariousness, dominance, being comfortable in the spotlight, preferring action to contemplation, valuing certainty over doubt, and favoring quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong.”

Does this sound like anyone you know?


Just recently, I came across this article that analyzed Trump’s mental state. The results, it seems, are not good (to no one’s surprise).

Dictionaries to the Rescue


The morning after the election, I tweeted something along the lines of, “If there is a silver lining to the election of Donald Trump, it’s that it should inspire a lot of good punk rock and metal over the next four years.”

Little did I know that, in addition to these forthcoming musical gems, this knuckle head’s rise to power would also get the folks behind some of our lexicographical institutions all fired up!

This whole thing started last Sunday, when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd of NBC that that Trump Press Secretary Shawn Spicer was offering “alternative facts” when he told reporters that, “[The crowd at Trump’s swearing-in] was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”

Not missing a beat, Merriam-Webster began making fun of the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, taking Conway to task for trying to sell “alternative facts” as, you know, a thing.
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a  tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how look-ups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

As awesome as that initial ribbing was, the story continues to get better as Merriam-Webster has continued to school the Trump administration on its use of words … or at least it’s attempts to use them.

And so, for its continued efforts to educate our “president,” as well as for its success in making dictionaries cool again, we here at the ARLCP tip our hats to Merriam-Webster. Hence our decision to make this lexicographical kerfluffle our “News Item of the Week.”

For more on the dictionary’s revenge, see the following articles:

Subtweet (v.): What Merriam-Webster Dictionary Is Doing to the President

Did a dictionary diss Trump team’s ‘alternative facts’?

The dictionary that’s one of Trump’s funniest fact checkers

Trump Derangement Syndrome? Urban Dictionary has bashed president every day since inauguration
Washington Times

We Talked to the Genius Behind the Viral Merriam-Webster Twitter Account