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.

The Art of the Dictionary

Art of the Dictionary (Vol. 2)

If you haven’t noticed, I’m rather focused on words. What they mean, where they come from, how they’re used–I’m interested in all of it. This, I suppose, is why I’ve been filling my home with dictionaries and other references for the past few years and, as far as I can tell, this obsession shows no sign of letting go.

Be that as it may, tonight I’m going to do something a little different. Instead of finding a word to dig into on the digital pages of this blog, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on the graphics, illustrations, and images found alongside the words in some of the references that line the Butter Lamb Reference Library’s shelves.

As you’ll see below, I should do this more often.

1) An illustration found within the section on horse racing in The Slang of Sin


“Horse racing has been a fixture of American popular culture since the earliest days of European immigrants. The first race conducted in what would become the United States was held in Hempstead Plain, New York in 1665…. But–WAIT–do not forget! Because of the gambling component inherent in horse racing, it is a vice and a sin…. Either we learned our lesson or we forgot it.”

2) Illustration accompanying the entry for “Harrowing of Hell” in the Encyclopedia of Hell


“During the the three days between the time Christ’s death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, Christians believe that Jesus descended into hell and freed the souls of the just who had died prior to his crucifixion. This event, called the harrowing of hell, is not included in the Bible, but it has been taught by religious scholars from the earliest days of Christianity…. Some accounts of the harrowing include a trial held in the underworld to determine whether Christ’s action is just.”

3) Illustration accompanying the entry for “Hedgehog” in the Dictionary of Symbolism


Hedgehog – The animal that is “armed, and yet a hero of peace,” respected throughout the areas, in the Old World, where it is found. In antiquity its spines were used to roughen cloth, and its meat to make herbal medicine, e.g., against hair loss, since its spines evoked the image of resilient hair. The skin of a hedgehog hung from a grapevine was through to ward off hail. The shrewdness of the hedgehog as a storer of food was extolled by Pliny the Elder.”

4) Illustration accompanying the entry for “gremlin” in the Dictionary of World Folklore


“Gremlin – Modern mischievous spirits of machinery, diminutive imps first identified by airforcemen in World War I, but only widely recognized in World War II…. Gremlins delight in plaguing humans by causing tools and machinery to malfunction, loosening a screw here and blocking a pipe there to cause maximum disruption at the most critical moments. Descriptions of gremlins vary widely; they are said to range from 6 to 21 inches in height, and despite their high level of aerial involvement they have no wings and must hitch rides with the airmen they plague.”

5) Cover of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Vulgar Tongue

No real fun or interesting tidbits to share here, I just love this illustration. To give it some context, here’s an excerpt from the dictionary’s preface:

“By an occasional reference to our pages, the [young men of fashion] may be initiated into all the peculiarities of our language by which the man of spirit is distinguished from the man of worth. They may now talk bawdy before their papas, without the fear of detection, and abuse their less spirited companions who prefer a good dinner at home to a glorious up-shot in the highway, without the hazard of a cudgelling.”

Know Your Words

Clearly, Utopia Doesn’t Exist

For a long time Brook Farm was viewed as a well-intended debacle … What if we thought of the utopian experiments in the time before the Civil War as successful to some extent, rather than merely thinking of them as failed? Utopia is by definition never to be achieved, but what is to be achieved on the road to utopia?

Utopia_coloured2I realize that it seems ridiculous to even broach the topic of utopia after a government shutdown, but, you know, I had this post planned before it happened. Besides, I’m not going to waste my time suggesting we try to create one. Rather, my intent with this post is to fact-check the assertion in the above excerpt from Robert Sullivan’s The Thoreau You Don’t Know and ask: Is the inability achieve utopia really inherent in the word’s definition?

The answer it seems is, “yeah, for the most part.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, utopia is, first and foremost, an imaginary island depicted by Sir Thomas More in a book of the same name. In that text, the island is described as “enjoying a perfect social, legal, and political system.”  However, as in the quote above, the word is typically used as an adjective to denote, in rather snide fashion, “an impossibly ideal scheme, usually for social improvement.”

Although you can (clearly) hear the sarcasm in that second sense of the word, such attitude fails to provide the whole story. To arrive at a complete understanding of why utopia “is not to be achieved,” you have to dig a little deeper, into the word’s etymology.

As the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories notes,

That such an ideal state is unattainable in reality is implied by the name More gave to the island, which literally means “no place,” from Greek ou- (meaning not, no) and topos (meaning place).

In Modern English utopia has become, through the influence of More’s classic, a generic term for any place of ideal perfection, especially in laws, government, and social conditions. Less optimistically utopia has also come to mean an impractical scheme for social improvement.

“Less optimistically”? How droll ….

Since the word can be traced back to the man who invented it, I suppose it’s not a surprise the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Dictionary of Word Origins, and even the long-titled Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English all agree on its origin. However, if you really want to know why utopia is “no place” … err … and you don’t feel like reading More’s book, check out the multi-page entry for utopia in the astounding Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Although much to long to recap here, here’s a tiny piece of it to wet your whistle.

Politically, Utopia is a republic in which there is no private property and in which everyone takes seriously his [sic] duty toward the community. No one is rich, but there is no poverty and no one risks going short of anything. The public storehouses are perpetually full, thanks to the efficiency of the economy and the rationally planned distribution of natural resources. The abolition of private property and money have wiped out the passion for property and money; it also led to the disappearance of all crimes and abuses connected with the desire for wealth and superiority and, for the same reasons, poverty itself has vanished.


Reference News Roundup

This Week’s Reference News Round-Up


Good day butter lambs! It’s the end of a long week and I’m celebrating by kicking up my heels and digging in to the wordy news of the week. Have a great weekend and enjoy these articles.

And hey, if you like these, drop me a line and I’ll send you an email newsletter brimming with more articles. Don’t worry, I won’t share your email or spam you with other digital irritations. I’m not really set up for that anyhow.

Story of the week:

Merriam-Webster is Watching “Metal”
Metal has been a noun in good standing since the 13th century, and has been used attributively for most of that time, but as these examples show, these days it’s acting like a full-on adjective.

And here are some more ….

Dictionary Picks a Word Most People Have Never Heard of as Word of the Year
An Australian dictionary has chosen “milkshake duck” as its word of 2017, though after the announcement most people said they had never heard of the term. Born in the twittersphere, the word describes an overnight social media sensation whose viral support rapidly dissolves with closer scrutiny.

Merriam-Webster,, and Others Reveal their Words of 2017
Like the Time magazine “person of the year,” words of the year pronouncements  are more exercises in highlighting current societal trends than they are momentous awards.

Thousands Petition Junior Dictionary over Nature Words
More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Oxford Junior Dictionary to reinstate words related to the natural world.

‘Sycophant’: Mike Pence Provides Teachable Moment for
“There’s a word for a person who would praise someone every 12 seconds,”’s Twitter account posted Thursday, before linking to the dictionary’s entry for “sycophant.

Youthquake, Feminism, Complicit: These Words Defined 2017 
From “feminism” to “youthquake” and “fake news,” these are the words that defined 2017, according to your favorite dictionaries.

Japanese Dictionary’s Definition of “LGBT” Draws Criticism for Inaccuracy on the “T” Part

Critics call for revision to brand-new edition of one of Japan’s most trusted and influential language resources.

Words We’re Watching: ‘Doggo’
Is Merriam-Webster leading the charge to refer to dogs as doggos? Not exactly, but they are keeping an eye on its use.

In This Dictionary Online, for Each Word a Limerick Rhyme
NPR host Noel King offers up news of a mission to rewrite the dictionary in limericks. The online database started as a joke, but it’s gotten nearly 100,000 entries since 2004.

Van Containing 1830s Johnson’s Dictionaries Stolen in Norwich
Police have warned people against buying a pair of 19th Century dictionaries which were in a van which was stolen. The Johnson’s dictionaries, which are worth about £300, date back to the 1830s and were in a delivery van which was stolen in Aylesbury Close, Norwich. Norfolk Police said they were “not the sort of thing you see every day.”

Want more Reference News Roundups? Look through our archives!

Know Your Words

Surprise: My Day in a Word

SurpriseDread weighed heavy on my morning as I went through my pre-work routine. Word on the street was that the Director of the Program was going to hand me my ass in a 2:00 pm meeting for an error in a presentation he gave at a recent conference. How was this my fault? I made the presentation.

It wasn’t the getting yelled at the bothered me. I mean, fuck this guy, right? I’d been yelled at by better men than him. What bothered me was that the meeting wasn’t until the mid-afternoon, and I’d likely be at my desk by 8:30 am. Get it over with already so I could get on with my day. My outlook on my job was already pretty gloomy. I didn’t need this dark cloud hanging over my head, making things even worse.

When 2:00 pm arrived. I made my way into the director’s office and pulled up a chair at coffee-colored conference table dominating his office. As soon as my ass hit the seat, my ire started to rise. I was ready to return whatever insulting volley he sent my way.

Turns out I didn’t need to get so worked up, for he didn’t have any real problems with me or my work. He acknowledged the error, but, overall, he said the presentation was pretty good and that it was well received. In fact, if he was upset with anyone, it was with my boss–the very person who told me to prepare for the worst.

This, to be sure, was a pleasant surprise.

*   *   *

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word surprise, when not used in the militaristic sense, is defined as “an unexpected occurrence or event; anything unexpected or astonishing” and “the feeling or emotion excited by something unexpected, or for which one is unprepared.”

Oh, I was unprepared for the director’s comments alright. You could even say that they caught me off guard. No wonder then that, etymologically speaking, the word surprise is inextricably linked to the notion of a surprise attack. As noted in the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (ODWH):

A surprise was originally an “unexpected seizure of a place, or attack on troops.” It comes from the Old French feminine past participle of surprendre, from medieval Latin superprehendere “to seize.”

The Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) agrees, “To surprise someone is etymologically to ‘overtake’ them,” and goes on to offer the same etymology as the ODWH. However, it also notes that, “By the time [surprise] reached English, it had begun to be used for ‘affect suddenly.'”

Unfortunately, the origin of the phrase “well blow me down” (also a way of indicating surprise) remains a mystery.


Know Your Words

“Authoritarian” and Other Words in Flake’s Speech

Flakey“Our democracy will not last”–those are the first five words an article appearing in the Washington Post, and they come from a floor speech that Arizona Senator Jeff Flake (R) delivered on the floor of the chamber on January 17, 2018.

Whatever your politics, it’s a remarkable read. This was a speech accusing the current the President of the United States of anti-democratic behavior, and it was given by a sitting (although outgoing) Senator of the same party. Gnarly.

Anyhoo, my aim here is not to praise or critique the content of the Mr. Flake’s speech, but to provide a closer look at some of the terms that appear in it. As is often the case when words take center stage, people start to wonder just what the hell some of them mean, even if they get thrown about on a (semi-) regular basis. As a case in point, consider Merriam-Webster’s list of “trending” words, which rise to the top of our collective curiosity after appearing in the media (or one of Trump’s tweets … or a response to one of Trump’s tweets).

With that in mind, I’d like to call attention to some of the words that appeared in the Flake Speech. There are quite a few chewy morsels of wordy goodness in Flake’s remarks–empirical, lexicon, annihilate, shame, despotism, slur, obeisance. Although I don’t have the time to dig into them all, I’d like to spend the rest of this post taking a look at a few of them. Naturally, I’ll use some of the texts in the LRL’s collection to help me out.

1) “No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions.”

To remain at rest, either physically or mentally; to rest satisfied (OED)

To consent or comply passively, without protest (AHD)

Tacit consent; passive submission; patient acceptance; agreement; compliance (WD)

To accept or consent quietly without protesting (WNWDAL)

From Latin ad- (at) and quiescere (to rest) – Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories

2) Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship….”

Right by birth; the rights, privileges, or possessions to which one is entitled by birth; inheritance, patrimony. (OED)

Any privilege granted a person by virtue of his birth. (2) Any special privilege accorded to the first born. (AHD)

Any right, privilege, or possession to which a person is entitled by birth (WD)

The rights that a person has because he (sic) was born in a certain family, nation, etc (WNWDAL)

3) “Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate ….”

Having the quality of destroying; tending to destroy, kill, or injure; destructive; ruinous; fatal. (OED)

Tending to cause death or serious injury; deadly. Causing great harm; destructive; ruinous. (AHD)

Highly injurious or hurtful (WD)

Causing injury, destruction, or ruin; fatal; deadly (WNWDAL)

Pernicious is from Latin perniciosus (destructive), from pernicies (ruin), based on nex, nec- (death) – Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories

4) I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best.”

A deliberate slight; an expression or suggestion of disparagement or reproof. (OED)

To pass over lightly or carelessly; treat without due consideration (AHD)

To soil, sully, or contaminate (WD)

To pass over quickly and carelessly; make little of (WNWDAL)

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the origin of slur is unknown, but it’s believed to be related to the Middle English noun slur meaning thin, fluid mud, which in turn gave rise to the verbs smear, smirch, and disparage.

5) “… perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.”

To trouble, afflict or harass (a person) by aggression by aggression, encroachment, or other interference with peace and quiet. (OED)

To irritate or annoy, as with petty importunities; bother; pester (AHD)

To irritate by small annoyances; harass; tease; make angry (WD)

To make trouble for, disturb, annoy, irritate, especially in little things. (WNWDAL)

Vex is from the Old French word vexer, which is traced back to Latin vexare, meaning to “shake or disturb.” – Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories.

Oh, and one last important one:

6) We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.”

Favorable to the principle of authority as opposed to that of individual freedom. (OED)

Characterized by or favoring absolute obedience to authority, as against individual freedom (AHD)

Favoring the principle that individuals should obey an authority rather than exercise freedom (WD)

Believing in, relating to, or characterized by unquestioning obedience to authority rather than individual freedom of judgement of judgement and action. (WNWDAL)

AHD = American Heritage Dictionary
OED = Oxford English Dictionary
WD = Winston Dictionary
WNWDAL = Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language

Know Your Words

Lest We Forget


The Hill and several other news agencies reported on Saturday (12/16/2017) that,

“Multiple agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have reportedly been told by the Trump administration that they cannot use certain phrases in official documents. Officials from two HHS agencies, who asked that their names and agencies remain anonymous, told The Washington Post that they had been given a list of ‘forbidden’ words similar to the one given to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).”

[Just so we’re on the same page, the word “forbidden” means not permitted; prohibited.]

Although I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of banning words at this time in our history (the practice seems so medieval!), I thought it important to do my part via The Papercut to push back against this terrible idea and help folks remember what these words mean and that the attempt to ban words is asinine.

So, here’s a list of those “banned” words and their definitions.

Evidence-based: The word evidence is defined as 1) The condition of being evident. 2) Something that makes another thing evident; indication; sign. 3) Something that tends to prove; ground for belief. Therefore, an evidence-based claim or assertion would be one that is supported by evidence and not, you know, ideology or faulty, unproven ideas.

Science-based: The word science means 1) the state or fact of knowing; or knowledge. 2) Systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on to determine the nature or principles of what it being studied. Therefore, a science-based claim or assertion would be one that is based in science. (And yes, the fact that the Trump administration would in any way want to diminish the notion of basing decisions in science should scare the bejezus out of you.)

Vulnerable: Vulnerable means 1) that which can be wounded or physically injured. 2) open to criticism or attack (as in a vulnerable reputation). 3) open to attack or assault by armed forces. [Note: The Trump administration seems unaware its reputation is vulnerable … or it doesn’t care.]

Entitlement: A person who is entitled to something has been “given a right, claim, or legal title” to something. An entitlement then, is that right, claim, or title.

Diversity: Diversity refers to the 1) quality, state, fact, or instance of being diverse; difference. 2) variety; multiformity. (that’s right, multiformity). Diverse, of course, means 1) Different, dissimilar. 2) Varied; diversified (What is it with the Trump administration’s problem with difference?)

Transgender: The dictionary I’m looking at right now must have come from the Trump administration, because the word “transgender” isn’t in it. However, with a little brain power, we can figure it our by combining the trans- and gender, which are defined in the book. Trans- means 1) on the other side of, to the other side of, over, across 2) so as to change thoroughly 3) above and beyond. Gender, of course, is a synonym for sex (male or female).

Fetus: the word fetus refers to 1) the unborn young of an animal while still in the uterus or egg, especially in the later stages. 2) in humans, the offspring in the womb from the end of the third month of pregnancy until birth. Now, it might seem strange that Trump administration, which masquerades as Christian, would want to distance itself from the word fetus, which is a staple in the lexicon of pro-lifers near and far. However, my guess is that they want to eliminate its use in favor of “human life” or “person.” The word “fetus,” has an undeniably cold, clinical flavor to it, which is why it is sometimes included among other euphemisms for unborn baby. Be that as it may, the word comes from the Latin word fetus or foetus, meaning “a bringing forth, bearing, progeny.” Thus, those who object to its alleged euphemistic use are, in a word, wrong.