I love words. (You may possibly have noticed.) It’s one of the delights of reading, not just the storyline or characters but the way that sentences and phrases break down before being reassembled, the collocations or how their constituent words are juxtaposed or arranged.
I’m partial to commas, colons, brackets and semicolons (again, you might have noticed) because the more that words and phrases are put together in different relationships the richer the language becomes. So much nicer than the jumble of clichés that we customarily read, hear, write and say, at least to my way of thinking. (Of course, it’s almost impossible not to avoid those habitual collocations — as, for example, erm, my way of thinking.)
And let’s not forget the secondary meaning of ‘collocation’, literally ‘the positioning of things side by side’. I present above a conflation of both definitions, a collocation of dictionaries. You’re now itching to know the background to those volumes, are you not?
Let me start with McDougall’s Etymological and Biographical Dictionary [with aids to pronunciation and numerous appendices]. McDougall’s Educational Co Ltd were an Edinburgh firm, Specialists in Scholastic Stationery of All Kinds, which flourished around the time of the First World War. My battered and undated ex libris school copy may well be out of date but is chockful of fascinating snippets deemed to be of importance to students of the day: classical and foreign words and phrases with the roots, prefixes and suffixes of Latin and Greek; brief details of authors, artists, composers, scientists and explorers and their works; and Geographical Names Often Mispronounced. As well as common abberviations it tells you how to address a Viscount (‘The Right Honourable the Lord Viscount. Begin letters “My Lord”‘), apothecaries’ weights prior and since 1864, and lastly railway gauges (sadly missing from my copy).
Of course one can look up etymology online (https://www.etymonline.com is invaluable) but the actual pages of a dictionary allow one’s eye to slide up or down a column to related or even unrelated words and their derivations. A somnolent student of Ancient Greek and Latin at school — I failed one and just passed the other — I retain a passing knowledge of roots, prefixes and suffixes, I’m glad to say, enough to help me navigate with some confidence through Collins Latin Gem Dictionary (1957).
Better still, James Morwoord’s A Dictionary of Latin Words and Phrases (OUP 1998) gives me a fuller range of “words, mottoes, and sayings” — note the Oxford comma, by the way — that inter alia I can pepper posts like this with ex cathedra pronouncements.
John Warrington’s Everyman’s Classical Dictionary (Dent 1961) is more than just a quick-fix list of classical placenames and personages (a prosopography is the posh way to describe such investigations into ancient lives). It’s easy to get hopelessly entangled by the multiple cross-references and a seemingly infinite number of rulers called Antiochus and suchlike. However, browsing is a delight: on page 359 my eye was caught by Narnia, which more prosaically turns out to be an Umbrian town on the river Nar, birthplace of the emperor Nerva.
Less reliable though wonderful to dip into is A Dictionary of Non-Classical Mythology compiled by Marian Edwardes and Lewis Spence (Dent 1912). Marian Edwardes, whose chief fame was as a translator of Grimms’ fairytales, was a specialist in early European literature; though exceedingly well-read (especially about pre-Columbian cultures in the New World) Lewis Spence had many weird occult ideas about Atlantis and the beliefs of Ancient Celts.
We have a few foreign language dictionaries, including the doorstopper Collins·Robert French-English English-French Dictionary (HarperCollinsPublishers 1987), my one-time go-to dictionnaire when I was teaching Special Needs French, now sadly much neglected. Also pictured is Heini Gruffudd’s The Welsh Learner’s Dictionary (Y Lolfa 2000), another reference book little used these days despite my two years as a dysgwr in evening classes over a decade ago.
For bookish purposes I instead tend to use the Collins-Spurrell Welsh Dictionary (Collins 1960) as it includes less modern and more archaic usages, and also D Geraint Lewis’ Geiriadur Gomer I’r Ifanc (Gomer 1994). The latter title proclaims that it’s a dictionary for young people, geiriadur meaning a lexicon or, to use a roughly comparable Old English term, a word-hoard. Luckily for a klutz like me many of the entries have line drawings and, in very small capitals, an English equivalent after the definition in Welsh.
Now here’s a curiosity: A Dictionary of Musical Themes by Harold Barlow and Sam Morgenstern (Ernest Benn Ltd 1949). An ex-library copy, probably stolen though whence I know not, it is a compendium of some ten thousand — yes, 10,000 — themes from the principal instrumental works of alphabetically listed composers, together with a key in the form of a notation index. If you can whistle or hum a tune in C major, C minor or A minor then, whatever their original keys, you can locate themes such as that famous one in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde prelude and even its parody in Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cake Walk, according to Morgenstern.
Back to words. David Crystal is one of the foremost experts in linguistics and has no end of academic publications to his name as well as works for readers of middlebrow interests. His A Dictionary of Language includes descriptions of hundreds of languages, literary and grammatical concepts and explanations of terms used in linguistics, language teaching and speech pathology. Curious about homophemes, parametric phonetics or Verner’s Law? It’s all here.
More approachable is his The Disappearing Dictionary: a treasury of lost English dialect words (Macmillan 2015). Just the words on the cover of the paperback edition are tasty enough: daberlick, fubsy, squinch, jubbity, quabble and boodyankers made me want to know more. Each word is assigned to one or more of the old counties of England or English-speaking Wales, and they’re supplemented by a geographical index. Crystal also pays his respects to Joseph Wright and his six-volume English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905).
And can one really neglect Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), revived as The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence (Studio Editions 1994)? I think not, when there are terms like member mug (a chamber pot), queer plungers (pretend suicide victims in search of a reward) and a spangle (a seven shilling piece) to puzzle over.
Also not pictured is A Smythe Palmer’s The Folk and their Word-Lore: an Essay on Popular Etymologies (George Routledge and Sons 1904). “Folk-etymology is the outcome of a craving for uniformity in the popular mind,” the author believes, the desire to seek similarity where there is apparent anomaly. The chapter headings indicate where Smythe Palmer takes his cue: foreign words metamorphosed (shoe-goose is from the Persian siyāh-gosh, the name of a kind of lynx), popular derivations (sparrow-grass from asparagus), folk-etymologies (a coverlet is not a diminutive cover but from the French couvre-lit, something to cover the bed). He continues with words which are mistaken (a ferrule derives not from the Latin for iron but for a circlet or ring), verbal corruptions (aghast is nothing to do with ghastly but is agazed, related to the word ‘gaze’) and finally with mistaken analogies and with misinterpretations. To be sure, there are some overlaps among his categories but you get the bigger picture.
Nigel Rees was long known as a presenter for BBC Radio’s Quote … Unquote, and his Dictionary of Popular Phrases (Bloomsbury 1990) explains the meanings and origins of over 1500 familiar phrases, including ‘a legend in one’s own lifetime’, ‘read my lips’ and ‘silly Billy’. Unputdownable though of course now a bit dated.
Staying with popular idioms we come to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951) edited by Iona Opie (who died in 2017) and her husband Peter (who predeceased her in the 80s). Five hundred and fifty popular nursery ditties, from ‘A was an apple-pie’ to ‘Oh the brave old Duke of York’, are quoted, along with notes on origins and possible meanings or functions, to which the authors attach an index of notable figures associated with the rhymes. It’s a real misanthrope who doesn’t immediately delve into these pages to recapture some fleeting memory of childhood.
I shall conclude this little sally amongst my reference books with Ambrose Bierce’s most famous oeuvre, his 1911 The Devil’s Dictionary or, in my edition, The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary (Penguin 1971). Subtitled With 851 Newly Discovered Words and Definitions Added to the Previous Thousand-Word Collection and edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins (who described Bierce correctly as ‘caustic’), this compendium fairly buzzes with bons mots and drips with venomous sarcasm. Any page opened at random produces a stinging rebuke: a Club is ‘an association of men for purposes of drunkenness, gluttony, unholy hilarity, murder, sacrilege and the slandering of mothers, wives and sisters’; self-esteem is ‘an erroneous appraisement’; a novel, ‘a short story padded’. So many, a hundred years on, seem either to have not dated at all or to have become even more pithy.
Now , this post has become rather pithy too. I’ll leave you to decide if I mean that it’s short and to the point or whether it’s turned out to be mere spongy substance.