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.

Reference News Roundup

This Week’s Reference News Roundup

Literally2Greetings once again Butter Lamb readers! It’s the weekend, which means it’s time for another Reference News Roundup. Once again, I’ve combed through the news and picked out another batch of dictionary-, word- and reference-related news for you to read and ponder.

Enjoy these articles and have a great weekend.

PS) Thanks for the likes and follows this week!


Story of the Week:

This Bar Says It Will Kick You Out If You Use the Word ‘Literally’

And the rest ….

Davos Jargon: A Crime against the English Language?

The Oxford English Dictionary Forgot to Include This Word for 50 Years

If Kids Don’t Know What ‘Acorn’ and ‘Nectar’ Mean, Don’t Blame the Dictionary

Here Are the Top 5 Most Requested Additions For “Words With Friends”

A Word, Please: A Common Phrase May Not ‘Beg the Question’
LA Times

Word of the Week: Deadlock

Panera Bread Demands FDA Define the Word ‘Egg’

Dangerous Words

Google Adds ‘Similar Sounding Words’ to Dictionary Search Cards

Fitzwilliam Author Delves into New England Urban Dictionary

Don’t Sweat It, Coolness Is a Social Construct

Get Yer Hand Off It, Mate, Australian Slang Is Not Dying

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.

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.