Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wordy Wednesday - Reflections from the Editor's Desk: Dictionaries

The other day on NPR, Diane Rehm rebroadcast a conversation with the editors of The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The fifth and final volume of this massive work was published in January, but I’d missed this interview. It became another “driveway moment.” You know, those shows or stories that are so interesting you sit in your car to hear the end of it. Except my husband and I weren’t in our driveway. We were at a rail trailhead, and we left the radio on and our car doors open while we hoisted our bikes down from the roof rack.

Now, I could listen to a discussion of language shifts and regional slang for hours. It’s just so fascinating to watch English evolve. What do you call meat or other fillings in bread? A sandwich, sammidge, sangwich? If the filling is in a roll, do you call it a hero, sub, hoagie, torpedo, grinder, spunky? Of course, hubby and I wanted to call in with the little quirks we’ve come across—“all” used to mean “all gone” in Pennsylvania Dutch country, or the variations of “ayuh” (yeah) in New England. My grandfather’s dramatic pronunciation of “Gawd.” Or the odd Mennonite custom of dropping “to be” in phrases like “the car needs fixed.” Even my DIL’s addition of “the” to road numbers: the 309, the 202.

Ever since My Picture Dictionary dropped into my five-year-old hands, I’ve loved dictionaries. I often get carried away when I go to look up a word, and find myself five columns down from where I started. I never throw one away, even when I buy an updated one; I still have my dad’s big old Webster’s from 1949. The gold title on the binding is nearly gone, and the dark blue fabric has faded to gray, but I won’t let it go. It carries the scents of my early home, the memory of my father’s big rough hands turning the fragile pages, and the mystery of words.

Earlier this summer, a friend gave me a wonderfully strange lexicon: The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. The version my friend found at a yard sale is a 1978 facsimile of the 1894 edition, complete with random ink blots and lacunae. Given the good reverend’s interest in religion and literature, it includes many entries on assorted heresies and often goes into detailed discussions of minor characters in classic literature. But there are also some colorful terms and phrases from ordinary life: going by the marrow-bone stage, i.e. walking. (This expression is listed under “Bayard,” a horse of incredible swiftness, and is an alternative to the ironic “ride bayard of ten toes.”)

Beyond its obvious value in deciphering outdated or archaic terms and characters, Phrase and Fable provides a fascinating insight into what constituted the world of a well-educated Englishman in the late nineteenth century—a thorough knowledge of classical Greek and Roman literature, plus Moliere, Milton, Shakespeare, Scott. The book is also invaluable for tracing the origins of words—though sometimes the origins Brewer gives are suspect. Take, for instance, London, which he claims comes from the Celtic Luandun, City of the Moon. Two lines later, he admits “it would take a page to give a list of guesses made at the derivation of the word London.” So dip into this dictionary with a box of salt (skepticism) at hand.

Above all, Phrase and Fable is a glimpse into the inquisitive, eclectic mind of a man of his times. I would love to eavesdrop on a conversation between him and another great scholar of language, J.R.R. Tolkien. Wouldn’t you?

Either DARE or Phrase and Fable would make a wonderful gift for any writer. Put them on your wishlist and see what happens.

Contributed by Nikki,
Editor with Champagne Books


  1. I love dictionaries and their like. Had planned on doing a week of Sam Johnson in April but got too involved with Aphrodite. Maybe later. As I write I'm looking at Dict of Symbolism, Dict of Historical Terms, Sam Johnson's Dict (1755), Dict of the Vulgar Tongue (1811-really wild), The Oxfords-King's English & Modern English Usage, Slang Through the Ages, Cassel's Trilogy - Word Histories, English Idioms, Foreign Words & Phrases, and my trusty Webster's Unabridged. Won't go in to the thesaurus and grammar collections or what's in the basement. Still can't find out if you capitalize the "f" in feds. WIll leave that to my editor extraordinaire. R

  2. Born in the Midwest, married to a New Yorker, lived in the west, retired to the south, I love language and not only what the dictionary says, but the words and phrases of regions. I have books on Southern speak, and comments from my husband in the margins. Great fun. You wouldn't believe some of the phrases and the differences. Pop to me, Soda to you!

    1. We call almost everything a Coke or a drink. R

  3. You all know me, word nut that I am. This one really touched home, Nikki - thank you!

  4. Good Article in pleasant atmosphere.Keep writing same as subject.
    burun estetigi

  5. Thanks to everyone for checking in and sharing your dictionary collections. You've given me another idea to talk about--regionalisms. In my birth state of New Jersey, we "went down the shore." Here in New Hampshire we "go to the seacoast." How do regionalisms help create a sense of place in your work?

  6. Loving it Nikki. We sometimes go over the bay for dinner on the grounds. (as in church picnic) Rita

  7. Love that expression, Rita.