Know Your Words

Hypochondria and that “Gut Feeling”

HippoHypochondria, or the belief that you’re ill or carrying some awful disease despite any evidence that to support it, is an interesting word. On first consideration, my gut feeling was that it was in some way related to Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician and, according to the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art, “the founder of the school of a scientific art of healing.”

That, however, is not the case. As Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language informs us, hypochondria comes from the

“Late Latin word for abdomen (pl. of Greek hypochondrion, meaning “soft part of the body below the cartilage and above the navel” [hypo-, under + chondros, cartilage: so called because the condition was supposed to have its seat in this region].”

and means, as I hinted at above, “abnormal anxiety over one’s health, often with imaginary illness and severe melancholy.”

Blakiston’s Pocket Medical Dictionary gets a little more technical, and requests that those looking for information about hypochondria begin by learning its proper name: hypochondriasis, which it (awesomely) defines as:

“A chronic condition in which a person is morbidly concerned with his or her physical or mental health, and believes himself [sic] to be suffering from a grave, usually bodily, disease often focused upon one organ, without demonstrable organic findings; this condition is traceable to some longstanding intrapsychic conflict.”

I have to admit, I find this association between hypochondria and morbidity somewhat of a surprise–the hypochondriacs on television always seem so energetic … even manic! This relationship shouldn’t come as such a surprise, though, for as my etymological dictionaries reveal, the connection between hypochondria and morbidity, melancholy, and even depression has been right there from the beginning. As the Merriam Webster New Book of Word Histories notes in its entry for hypochondria:

“Many ancient theories of pathogenesis, attractive though they are, have been discarded. That dire humor, black bile (or melancholy), was said to be a secretion of the spleen or kidneys and to produce a morbid state of bleak depression and with it an excessive concern with one’s health. This ‘disease’ was named for the region below the breastbone in which it had its origin, the hypochondria.”

And from the Dictionary of Word Origins:

“Originally, hypochondria was an anatomical term, denoting the ‘area of the abdomen beneath the ribs.’ […] This particular part of the body was formerly supposed to be the seat of melancholy, and so in the 17th century the word came to be used for ‘low spirits, depression.’ The modern sense ‘belief of being ill’ originally belonged to the derived hypochondriasis, but was transformed in the 19th century to hypochondria.”

So, it seems that Blakiston, who no doubt benefited from the wisdom of the ages, was right–the hypochondriac is suffering from some “psychic conflict.”

So, what happens if you dream about being sick? Does that count as hypochondria? Not exactly, says the Dream Dictionary from A to Z, but it does point to more psychic conflict.

“In dreams, indigestion suggests an idea or attitude that does not agree with you or that you are finding hard to stomach in waking life … The dream may also point to actual indigestion. Alternatively, could your stomach have been protesting in your dream because it is literally crying out for nourishment, either literally or because you are feeling starved of love?”

The book goes on to say that if your intestines are the source of discomfort in your dreams, you could be dreaming about something you don’t think you have the “guts” to do. Nausea in dreams may refer to a negative feeling in real life you need to address. Further, if you’re physically sick in a dream, it could mean that you need to “expel” or “get rid” of something in your life, like a job, a relationship, etc.

Now I know why I always  feel sick at work….

Know Your Words · Reference News Roundup

Reference News Roundup – Feb. 2, 2018

Alvar Sanchez, Nephew of Dona Lambra, Insults Gonzalo Gomez and is Slain by Him

Howdy Butter Lambs! Another work week has come to a close and, as usual, the BL is celebrating the weekly 55-hour escape from stupid work with some articles about dictionaries and the words they contain.


News Item of the Week

25 Great Insults From 18th Century British Slang

And the rest ….

New Word In The Dictionary: ‘Snowflake’

Hangry and ransomware added to Oxford English Dictionary

OED’s new words include ‘mansplaining’ but steer clear of ‘poomageddon’

Test yourself: Do you know what new words in Oxford English Dictionary mean?

“TTC”, “VBAC” and Other Parenting Slang Added to Dictionary

Publisher of Japan’s most authoritative dictionary corrects definition of LGBT

Merriam-Webster disses host for using ‘pissant’ to describe Tom Brady’s daughter

What is the best dictionary for word lovers?

Ahead of the State of the Union, a lexicographer analyzes Trump’s impact on language

Merriam-Webster Breaks Down Use Of Singular ‘Their’ In Quirky Limerick

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Following Our “Way of Life”

Breathing new life into old words

And here are some items from the Butter-Lamb that you may have missed!

Happy Candlemass, Marmot Planting Day (in honor of Groundhog’s Day)

The Fascicle Heard ‘Round the World

My Awkward Past with Heuristic


Know Your Words

The Fascicle Read ‘Round the World

On this day in 1884, the first portion, or fascicle, of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), considered the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary of the English language, is published. Today, the OED is the definitive authority on the meaning, pronunciation and history of over half a million words, past and present.

—, This Day in History

OED Dictionary Def
Part of the entry for “Dictionary” in the Oxford English Dictionary

Today (February 1) marks the debut of the Oxford English Dictionary, or at least its first fascicle, anyway.

What’s that? You don’t know what a fascicle is? That makes two of us. To the books!

Given the significance of this day, I looked to the compact Oxford English Dictionary for a definition. It did not disappoint. Fascicle is defined as:

1. A bunch, bundle. (Now only in scientific use.)
2. A part, number (of a work published in installments)

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language generally agrees, but refers to a fascicle as a “small” bundle. It also adds a botanical definition for fascicle, “a small tuft or cluster of fibers, leaves, or flowers.”

Surprisingly, the word doesn’t appear in hardly any of my etymological dictionaries (including the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories), except for Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. This text traces fascicle back to the Latin word fasces, “a bundles of authoritative rods,” plural of fascis, a bundle. Origins continues:

Latin fascis has an Italian derivative fascio, a bundle, hence a political group, whence both fascismo, hence Fascism, and fascisti, hence Fascists.

Whew, I didn’t expect the history of this word to take such a hard right turn. I’m not surprised, though, given the appearance of the word “authoritative” in meaning of its root. No wonder the OED is deemed an “authority.” (Relax, that’s a joke.)

According to Wikipedia, the Oxford English Dictionary began as a project of the London Philological Society and was led by a small group of intellectuals (not associated with Oxford University) who were “dissatisfied with the existing English dictionaries.”

Those intellectuals were Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall, and not one of them gets a mention in the Dictionary of Global Culture (DGC), which is kind of weird given that Maria Kuncewiczowa does. Nothing against Ms. Kuncewiczowa, of course, but you’d think that the originators of the OED would be just as important as a Polish novelist and short story writer. The DGC is a fairly thick book. You’d think there’d be room for both.The same could be said for a mention of the OED in the book. “Punk” gets a mention, why not the OED?

But I digress ….

According to, the OED was initially expected to be “a four-volume, 6,400-page work … estimated [to] take 10 years to finish. It took over 40 years until the 125th and final fascicle was published in April 1928 and the full dictionary was complete.” Awesome as that is, my favorite part of the OED’s origin story is that, as soon as it was finished, the editors began updating it.  “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.

Know Your Words

My Awkward Past with “Heuristic”

If legislatures and courts are looking at dictionary definitions, it’s not the definitions that are swaying their opinions. To quote the 2013 study* [analyzing the Court’s dictionary use in criminal, civil, and corporate law cases] again, “The image of dictionary usage as heuristic and authoritative is a little more than a mirage.” But try convincing people upset over the court’s decision to redefine marriage that that’s the case.

— Kory Stamper, Word by Word

Archimedes figures it out. Now I have too.

Heuristic—I confess that, until recently, I’ve never known the meaning of this word. It’s a rather embarrassing thing to admit because heuristic and I have something of a past. See, we used to run into one another every so often in something I was forced to read for grad school. We’d exchange passing glances, acknowledging  each other’s presence, but the encounter would be awkward, like running into a former classmate or friend-of-a-friend you were acquainted with didn’t really know (and didn’t really care to). Simply put, I was just too lazy to make the effort and look it up.

So, you can imagine my discomfort when I came across the word in the above passage from Kory Stamper’s Word by Word a few weeks ago. Suddenly, the status quo would no longer suffice. I run a blog about words and dictionaries, for god sakes! The writing was on the wall. My relationship with heuristic would have to change.

So, I made the effort. Instead of succumbing to laziness I made the effort. I grabbed my compact Oxford English Dictionary like I had so many times before and looked that fucker up. Admittedly, this time it felt special.

Heuristic, says the OED, is the adjective form of the word heuretic, which refers to the branch of logic that deals with the art of discovery or invention. Therefore, heuristic means “serving to find out or discover.”

Mmmm, hokay. I have no reason to doubt that (those OED peeps generally know what they’re talking about), but that definition seems less than satisfying. In search of more answers, I consulted Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, my go-to for reasons inexplicable. It said: “helping to discover or learn; sometimes used to designate a method of education is which the pupil is trained to find out things for [his or her] self.”

Now that makes more sense, and it also suggests that my decision to up-end tradition and finally learn the meaning of heuristic was heuristic in and of itself! How cool is that?!?! In fact, one could argue that this entire blog is one big heuristic exercise!

And what about the etymology? (I thought you’d never ask….)

Heuristic, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, comes from the Greek word heuriskein meaning “to find.” The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins (DWO) says the same, but before it does so, it tells the familiar story of the Greek mathematician Archimedes and his clever solution to finding the weight of a crown make for King Hiero II of Syracuse. At the end of that story, Archimedes is purported to have yelled “heureka” or (I have found!), which the DWO also attributes to heuriskein. While sounding somewhat far-fetched, Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English associates the same Greek words (heureka and heuriskein) with heuristic, but without the story of Archimedes.


* That 2013 study “found that the justices tended to use dictionaries to bolster an opinion that was already held, rather than confirming the objective meaning of a word.” (Stamper, p. 250)

Know Your Words · The Art of the Dictionary

The Bedeviling Symbol of the Octopus

0130181842Earlier today, while thumbing through some books in search of blogspiration, I found myself lazily flipping  the pages of The Dictionary of Symbolism, where I came across an intriguing entry for octopus.

After teasing us with a somewhat poetic description of the beast–“Its arms, depicted as rolled up in spirals, form an impressive symmetry around the body with its two eyes, the whole suggesting a head surrounded by snake-like hair”–goes on to suggest it might have been the inspiration for the mythical figures of Medusa and the Scylla, “the mythical sea monster who menaced Odysseus and his crew.” Then it goes on to talk about s cuttlefish, and how the ink emitted by both these animals was deemed a symbol of their ties to “mysterious and otherworldly forces.”

0130182215aAnd what “mysterious and otherworldly” forces might those be? It didn’t care to elaborate, but the implication was that, like the ink, they were dark.

Fortunately, there are other symbol references that are more willing to lay it on the line. Among them are the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols, which declares “Even in earliest times, [the octopus] became a symbol of the spirit of the devil and of hell in general because of its eight tentacles.”

Okay, that’s dark, but what the hell does possessing eight tentacles have to do with the devil or hell? (Get it, possessing?)

Sadly, Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols doesn’t offer much more.

[The octopus] … has the same significance as the dragon-whale myth. As a decorative motif…. It is related to the spider’s web and the spiral, both being symbolic of the mystic Center and of the unfolding of creation. It also has been credited with a merely existential significance.

Clearly, Cirlot cares more about dragons than octopi, because one must read that entry to find out just what that significance is. (You’d think you could read the entry for whale as well, and I did, but that one is rather thin too.) I took the time to read the entry for dragon, and I was glad to find it wasn’t wasted.

The dragon … stands for ‘things animal’ par excellence, and here we have a first glimpse of its symbolic meaning, related to the Sumerian concept of the animal as ‘adversary,’ a concept which later came to be attached to the devil.

Now we’re getting somewhere! With it’s odd, alien form and serpent-like appendages for arms, no wonder the octopus was the inspiration for terrifying creatures like Medusa and sea monsters who emerge from the inky deep to imprison us or drag us off into the dark realm they call home. It’s the stuff of dreams, or better yet nightmares!

As it turns out, it is the stuff of dreams and nightmares (but mostly the latter). This is why, in addition to symbol references, it’s worthwhile to have a few dream dictionaries hanging around the shelves of your library, for the meaning of the images, icons, and symbols conjured by our minds at night often make themselves known in our dreams.

For example, consider the following excerpt from the octopus entry in The Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

In their positive form, [octopuses] reflect emotional depth and the ability to direct your energy in many directions without losing your center…. [They] may also be associated with a person or situation that has many ways of holding or affecting you, such as a mother or a debt.

0130181905The Watkins Dream Dictionary of Dreams offers a similar, albeit slightly more sinister interpretation of the dreamed octopus. According to this text, octopi in dreams are noteworthy because:

For a two-handed human, the idea of having eight legs, each with a different function, might suggest an inability to focus on one thing at a time, or a tendency to disperse one’s essential energies in unfruitful activities. Octopi may also be threatening, and indicative of emotional minefields—lunging unexpectedly at a human being from the depths of the ocean.

Crisp’s Dream Dictionary, after echoing the previous sentiments about mothers (what’s that about?), simply notes that an octopus in a dream can “symbolize any unconscious fear” capable of “dragging us into its realm of irrational terror.”

Sounds rather adversarial to me.

PS.) And what do octopuses have to do with hockey? Find out here!


Note: This is the second version of this post. There was a GLARING error in the first–I completely misread a passage in one of the texts quoted here and built my post around that misunderstanding. Luckily, I was able to fix it but, boy oh boy is my face red. I’d like to chalk it up to staying up late or drinking too much coffee, but the sad truth is that I’m just a moron sometimes. My apologies.

Know Your Words

Is the Original Meaning of a Word the Right One?

Thoreau was passionate about the roots of words — he owned 17 dictionaries** — and he believed that good writing not only used words in their historic meaning, but brought the reader to the deeper wisdom that the words themselves contained. A smart pun was not just a pun, but a pun that directed the reader to a truth…. Whereas the average punster might pun for the pun’s sake, Thoreau looked for the pun that would … “drive to the radical meaning of things.”

– Robert Sullivan, The Thoreau You Don’t Know


writing blank from 1768
Writing blank of 1768 titled The origin of the days of the week as derived from the planets once worshiped on those days.

So there I was, flipping through the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, when I came across an entry for etymological fallacy, “The belief that an earlier or the earliest meaning of a word is necessarily the right one.”*

Admittedly, until that moment I was unaware of the concept, and at first glance, it didn’t seem right. I mean, I knew the meaning of words changed over time, but in my experience it always seemed worthwhile to discover a word’s origin when learning how to use it.

Curious to know more, I dug into my etymological dictionaries to see if they had anything more to say about the subject. Not that I expected them to contain an entry for etymological fallacy mind you, but I wondered if that phrase or any mention of its potential repercussions appeared in the front matter of any of the word-history books in my library.

To my surprise, neither the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories nor the Dictionary of Word Origins had anything to say about the idea. In fact, they (oddly) didn’t have much to say about deciphering word origins at all.

I did, however, come across the following in the book Websterisms, in a section titled “Etymology Run Amok.”

[Noah] Webster loved to speculate on the meaning of the primitive roots of modern words. Sometimes he admits to being flummoxed about a word’s origin, but as a rule he does not shrink from a guess, even when the evidence to support it is meager. His etymologies are often are often plausible, and usually they are correct, but scholars in his own time … let alone those in our own, could not take very seriously his forays into the history of English.

Guess? Meager evidence? Scholars not taking some of his work seriously? These aren’t the kinds of words and phrases a dictionary aficionado likes to see applied to the man known as the “Founding Father of American English.” How could this be?

Thankfully [and In true reference book fashion], Webster’s New Explorer Dictionary of Word Origins (WNED) provides a few answers as to why the etymologies of many words aren’t as clear—or static—as some (particularly those guilty of etymological fallacy) would like them to be.

Many of the histories in this book also reflect the fact that the meanings of English words never seem to be at rest, because we who speak and write the language simply won’t let them rest. We keep applying old words to new things and new situations, and we have done so as long as there has been an English language. Sometimes a simple extension of meaning takes place, but sometimes the development of meaning takes so long and involves so many steps that the original meaning drops away and the word is almost stood on its head.

Beyond the notion of extension and the lengthy development of meaning, the WNED notes that English speakers may slowly change the meanings of words by repeatedly using them “disparagingly or sarcastically.” For example:

Puny first meant no more than “younger” when it passed from French into English and its spelling was transformed. Only later did it acquire the derogatory meaning more familiar to us now.

Further, the editors of the WNED readily admit that, despite having a name that ends in “-ology,” etymology is “not an exact science” and, sometimes, etymologists simply cannot discover the origin of a word. “Unproved but often ingenious etymological theories are put forward frequently, some plausible and very attractive, some wildly improbable.”

In the end, though, the editors of the WNED explain away all etymological shortcomings, their own included, by dusting off a time-honored excuse of those who dare to claim to be an authority on a particular subject: the human propensity for error*.

Recall always that we, like all other etymologists and most other human beings are imperfect…. Time and time again, etymologists have felt that they had reached the final answer, only to find themselves faced with new evidence and so forced to revise their explanations.

So what does all this mean for those who insist that the first or early meanings of a word are correct? Only this: Words change, nobody’s perfect, and to believe otherwise is crazy. Or, as the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology puts it, “That [the etymological fallacy] is fallacious is illustrated by the fact that orchard once meant a treeless garden, treacle a wild beast, and villain a farm laborer.”



* It’s fitting that I’m positing this on a Thursday, as this is something of a throwback. An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2015 (or maybe it was 2016) on an earlier blog of mine titled Reference Enthusiast. #TBT

** Big deal, I have 120.

Know Your Words

Disappearing “Woodscraft”

“He knew, in many cases, the precise number of steps required to reach a particular cabin, and once he selected a target, he bounded and wove through the forest, a touch of Tarzan to his style. ‘I have woodscraft,‘ Knight acknowledged, choosing an elegant term.”

– Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods



Elegant? I’d say so, but is it a word? It’s a good question. While there’s no doubt that [Christopher] Knight — the so-called North Pond Hermit* — had it, I can tell you who doesn’t: The Oxford English Dictionary, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Winston Dictionary, and all of the other references (encyclopedias, subject-area dictionaries, and thesauri) housed within the Butter Lamb Reference Library.

It was a similar story for the online references I consulted. When I searched woodscraft on, I was met with this insulting response:


No, jackass, that’s not what I meant. gave me a similar response, although they were a little nicer about it.


Well, maybe it’s not, but does its absence from your fancy book mean it isn’t a word? This was quickly turning into my ordeal with the word anachronist** all over again!

Having just read Word by Word, a book written by Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, I am sure that the good folks at MW (or any other dictionary) would never be so bold as to say woodscraft wasn’t a word. After all, no dictionary contains every word in the English language.

Be that as it may, it is interesting that here in the digital age, when anyone can find the answer to anything in just a few clicks (wink, wink, nudge, nudge … and we’re taking your personal information and selling it to advertisers, by the way), it remains difficult to find a website offering a solid definition for woodscraft.

Yet, although the online dictionaries let me down, I was able to come up with something. Using the search terms “woodscraft” and “word” (with the quotation marks … even though I’m not sure using them helps), I was given a bazillion search results that equated woodscraft with woodworking (which is clearly not what Knight is referring to in the excerpt at the top of this post) and one that offered something useful.










While this excerpt from a college course catalog doesn’t offer a definition of woodscraft per se, it does sort of explain the word in a way that meshes with the flavor and tone of the excerpt from The Stranger in the Woods that I used to launch this rant.

“Skills and knowledge useful for living out-of-doors with minimal equipment,” “manufacturing items from the immediate surroundings,” “general woods-knowledge.” It ain’t pretty, but I’ll take it.

Good job internet!


* Seriously, if you’re not familiar with Christopher Knight, a real life hermit who survived alone in the woods of Maine, all year-long, for more than 20 years, then you should check out The Stranger in the Woods. It’s an amazing story.