Jonathon Green’s massive tome, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made, is a hell of read. I’m only on chapter two and my copy already boasts an explosion of Post-It notes emerging like mushrooms from a soggy log. On seemingly every page there is some intriguing factoid, a nicely worded quote about the peculiar practice of writing an “abecedarium,” or new word (or at least a word that’s new to me). Here’s a tiny sample of some interesting stuff I’ve learned from the book thus far.
Abecedarium, meaning an alphabetical order, was one of those new-to-me words. Green includes it among a list of terms for “word books,” some of which you know and some you (probably) don’t. Here’s the complete list:
Alveary – a beehive (Oxford English Dictionary)
Catholicon – a universal remedy or panacea (Oxford English Dictionary)
Glossary – a list with explanations of abstruse, antiquated, dialectical or
technical terms (Oxford English Dictionary)
Manipulus – a handful or bundle (Oxford Latin Dictionary)
Medulla – the marrow of bones, also the substance of the brain; the pith
of human hair (Oxford English Dictionary)
Ortus – birth, sunrise, rising, beginning (Oxford Latin Dictionary)**
Promputarium – Store room, cupboard (Oxford Latin Dictionary)
Sylva – A title for a collection of pieces, especially of poems; also a thesaurus
of words or phrases (Oxford English Dictionary)
Thesaurus – A treasury or storehouse of knowledge (Oxford English Dictionary)
Vocabulary – A collection or list of words with brief explanations of
their meanings (Oxford English Dictionary)
Vulgar – Of language or speech: Commonly or customarily used by the
people of a country; ordinary, vernacular (Oxford English Dictionary)
Pretty cool stuff, right? But wait, there’s more! In the section of the book’s introduction bearing the subhead “Obscenity and Taboo,” Green includes this little nugget about the “F-word,” a well-worn bit of slang I wrote about nearly a year ago. Although that post contained some fun fucking facts, the following were not among them.
To wap and to niggle, both meaning to have sexual intercourse, or more properly, since they come from the slang vocabulary, to fuck, appear in Thomas Harman’s Caveat (1565). Fuck itself* appears first not in a slang work, but in a bilingual dictionary, John Florio‘s Worlde of Wordes, where it was cited as one of the English synonyms for the Italian fottere.
Finally, if you think that’s fucking amazing, get a load of this: Did you know that a handful of school districts in the United States banned the American Heritage, Webster’s New World (student edition), Random House, Doubleday, and other dictionaries because:
Self-appointed “concerned” parents, school boards, and their allies object to such terms as “hot” (in a sexual sense), “horny,” “crocked” (drunk), “knocker,” “nut,” “tail,” “ball,” and “bed” (in the definition of which Webster’s New World makes a reference to “bed” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse).
I found that so ridiculous I didn’t (want to) believe Mr. Green. Sure enough, a quick Google search revealed he’s telling the truth.
Have you read a good book about dictionaries? Let me know what it is!
* “Fuck itself” hah-hah-hah ….
** Green defines this as “garden,” but the Oxford Latin Dictionary defines it as noted above.