Posts from the ‘words’ Category

The Professor and the Madman-a book review

When was the last time you used a dictionary to look up a word?

Not online.

A hardbound or paperback book that you hold in your hands and in which you turn real paper pages.

Been a while?

It has for me.

Other than using Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, I keep three books on my desk:

  1. Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories by Wilfred Funk (yes, THE “Funk” of Funk and Wagnalls.)
  2. Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by J.H. Byrne (a gift from a close friend)
  3. The Book of Hard Words – Read it, See it, Know it, Use it. by David Bramwell

What was the last murder mystery you read?

Would it live up to this description, “…the linguistic detective story of the decade?”  That’s how New York Times Magazine writer, William Safire described, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

Did you ever wonder how, and by whom dictionaries were written?

The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the most famous of them all. For many, it is the gold standard. (It certainly is for lexicographers and members of the London Philological Society.) We would have never expected it to have been the product of mad dogs and Americans. Yes, an American madman played a significant role in creating the OED. These days, most Americans would define a madman as one who voted for the OTHER candidate.  Things were a bit different in 1871 London, and the States were still rebounding from their brush with being dis-united.oed

The story involves two protagonists eponymously referred to in the title. In a manner of speaking, there is also a third man–not Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.

Winchester treats readers to a sampling from the OED with a definition at the beginning of each chapter. The Preface is prefaced with the word, “mysterious,” and Chapter One begins with, “murder.”

And murder is where one of the two stories begins.

Dr. W. C. Minor was a battlefield surgeon (a Yankee)  in the War Between the States. As a result of his experiences in the war, he apparently suffered from what we know today as post traumatic stress disorder, a term likely not found in the first edition of the OED. In retrospect, researchers today speculate that his PTSD hastened, or perhaps even was responsible for a posthumous diagnosis of bipolar disorder. His untreated illness referred to in Victorian England as, “madness,” combined with a deep seated racism for the Irish. It eventually led to his choice of victims and the perpetuation of a crime that would result in his availability to volunteer an unlimited amount of his time to the research required to help write a literary masterpiece.

murray

James Murray at work on the OED

 

James Murray was a Scot who, by the time he was thirty, in 1867, had learned twenty-two languages in addition to English. Despite a stellar resume, he was turned down for a much coveted job in a British museum. Eventually, he was chosen by the committee at Oxford to lead the project that would take seventy years  and define over a half million words. The first edition consisted of twelve tombstone-sized volumes.

A rigorous dependence on gathering quotations to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language sets the OED apart from most other dictionaries. The previously mentioned definition of the word, murder, consumes more than two pages in the paperback edition of The Professor and the Madman. It seemed a monumental if not impossible task requiring an unbelievable number of hours which were supplied by volunteers. Who better to volunteer than an incarcerated word savant who was also a prolific reader?

Murray soon became buried under thousands of handwritten notes from Dr. Minor (by far the most prolific contributor) and hundreds of other volunteers. As the timelines of Murray and Minor converge, readers see their denouement as the dictionary is created while developing an appreciation for the men and their relationship. Winchester leaves us with the conclusion of their lives (not a Hollywood ending) and an appreciation for how their collaboration was essential  to the success of the project.

Casual readers will enjoy the story; writers and other word aficionados will feel this book is essential to have in their personal libraries.

Hard Words

The Book of Hard Words – Read it, See it, Know it, Use it. by David Bramwell

It’s hard to remember now, years later, what I was doing.

A series of loud bumps on the front door signaled the arrival of a visitor.

On my way to the door, I noticed through a side window that it was my neighbor’s son.

Dad was waiting several steps back at the sidewalk by the street.

The kid continued to pound on the door and as it began to open, he shouted, “Open up! You gotta buy something!”

The Ernest Hemingway approach to sales.

Simple.41o078qvm8l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

No frills.

Minimalist.

I bought whatever it was he was selling.

A Hemingway detractor, William Faulkner, once complained that Papa “…has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

In a little over fifty-five years of reading, I’ve been motivated to look up many words in dictionaries while reading. One thing’s for sure, though, I never put down a “page-turner” and interrupted a captivating story to study vocabulary.

On the other hand, learning new words and making an effort to use them has always been of interest. A well-read person should have a deep vocabulary — shouldn’t they?

It stands to reason.

This seemingly worthwhile pursuit has on occasion caused me some grief. In conversation or informal writing, if the listener doesn’t know what you’re talking about, then you have to explain it. The requirement of stopping and explaining word usage takes a lot away from the original intent of the message. It also leaves the impression that you might be a bit “snooty.”

“Don’t come around here using no five dollar words on me!” was a warning I didn’t want to hear very often. It does, now, in retrospect, cause me to wonder, ‘How much is a hard word worth today?”  Hmmm…

Whatever they’re worth, David Bramwell has got 112 for you for just over ten dollars in his book, The Book of Hard Words – Read it, See it, Know it, Use it.

Bramwell makes it easy to learn about the words in his book. An entire page is dedicated to each word complete with illustrations, pronunciation guide, sample usages, etymology and genealogy. The layout includes three sections titled, “Hard,” “Harder,” and of course, “Hardest.” The author acknowledges that this is not intended to be a complete compendium because, for example, one reader may consider a given word as being hard and another would not, from previous experience.  In my own case, it was a pleasant surprise to scan down the list of words and find many with which I was familiar.  Some of them, I use every day.

Back in my direct sales days, when I lived in Louisiana, it was advisable to write marketing pieces and especially letters on an eighth grade reading level. That was thirty years ago. It would not surprise me at all to discover that writing for any demographic today would benefit with that same advice. An author friend of mine received the following comment in a review of one of his books: “Only 7 percent of the population is going to understand several of the words the author uses.” In my own case, I would be thrilled if seven percent of the population owned a copy of one of my books, but is that what an author wants to do in attempts to sell more books?  I don’t think Hemingway had that problem, but I’m certain that Faulkner did.

Authors who have a word that might be considered difficult by some can take inspiration from the late William Safire, New York Times wordsmith-in-residence. In several of his books, he would use the device of having a character use a “hard” word in conversation. During that conversation, he or she would discuss that word and how it had been used. Another viable option for today’s writers — write a blog about it.

That would be mellifluous!

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