[from the Stabenow.com archives, February 22, 2010]
I’m what Barbara Wallraff calls a lexplorer, which means that on the way to looking up occurrence in my Webster’s College Dictionary to see if it’s two c’s or two r’s (both) and an “e” or and “a” (an e) I get sidetracked, first by osmometry (measurement of osmotic pressure), and then of course by osmotic pressure (the force that a dissolved substance exerts on a semipermeable membrane, through which it cannot penetrate), and the result is I misspell occurrence for the seventy-third time, but je ne regrette rien! because the spell checker just doesn’t have quite the same feel of untapped riches as getting lost in a dictionary does.
Like Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, where on the first page the noun absurdity is defined thusly: “A statement of belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.” A few pages on we find Australia, “A country lying in the South Sea, whose industrial and commercial development has been unspeakably retarded by an unfortunate dispute among geographers as to whether it is a continent or an island.”
And that’s just the A’s. Bierce wrote his dictionary an entry at a time for a weekly newspaper from 1881 to 1906, and even the curmudgeonliest reader will find something on every page to make them smile.
English is a voracious language, gobbling up any foreign word or phrase and putting it to use in law, medicine, cookery, fashion, slang, you name it. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Foreign Words in English tells us where those words and phrases come from, sometimes with surprising results. See circa, “around” from the Latin, as in circa 300 BC, but also, we discover somewhat to our incredulity, related to the English cerement, a waxed cloth for wrapping a corpse.
I also enjoy books about dictionaries, most recently Henry Hitchings’ Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Did you know that as late as the year 2000, American jurists were consulting the Dictionary to try to figure out what the founders meant by the word declare, as in “declaration of war?” Divided into chapters headed with definitions from the Dictionary in alphabetical order, written with affection, respect and not a little glee, this book is going to make you want to go out and do like Robert Browning did, read the Dictionary from cover to cover in preparation for a life of writing poetry.