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Posts Tagged ‘lexicography

“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”*…


In 1699, an anonymous lexicographer known only as “B. E., Gent.” published the first comprehensive dictionary of non-standard English. Although shorter word lists and glossaries of slang terminology had been published previously, B.E.’s New Dictionary of the Canting Crew listed over 4000 words and phrases, and is credited with being the first such publication resembling a modern dictionary. As a result, it remained the standard reference work for English slang and jargon for almost another century…

“Addle-plot,” “ebb-water,” and 28 other examples of historic jargon at “30 Excellent Terms From a 17th Century Slang Dictionary.”

* Carl Sandburg


As we reach for the right phrase, we might send gritty birthday greetings to a man who was a master of the coinage of crime– Samuel Dashiell Hammett; he was born on this date in 1894.  Hammett worked as an agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915-1922, when– disillusioned by the organization’s role in strike-breaking– he left to become a writer, providing copy in an ad agency until his fiction earned enough to support him.  Hammett drew for his fiction on his experiences as a “Pinkerton Man,” and created an extraordinary series of characters– Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), The Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse)– on the way to becoming, as the New York Times called him, “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction.”

In his book The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler, considered by many to be Hammett’s successor, observed,

Hammett was the ace performer… He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of The Glass Key is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before. 



Written by LW

May 27, 2017 at 1:01 am

There’s (now) a word for that…


From Oxford Dictionaries, the OED Birthday Word Generator

Do you know which words entered the English language around the same time you entered the world? Use our OED birthday word generator to find out! We’ve scoured the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to find words with a first known usage for each year from 1900 to 2004. Simply select the relevant decade and click on your birth year to discover a word which entered the English language that year.

Please note that the dates given for these words refer to the current first known usage of the word. The OED team is continuously researching the histories of words (something you may be able to help with), and it’s therefore possible that we will find an earlier sense of the words during our research…

A full exploration of the words of one’s nativity year requires a subscription; but the graphic on the intro page (pictured above; accessible here) is live, and will generate the word-of-the-year for any year selected.  Your correspondent’s birthday word (or phrase, as it happens):  “big bang.”


As we marvel at how times flies, we might send dramatic birthday greetings to Jean-Baptiste Racine; he was born on this date in 1639.  One of the three great dramatists in France in the 17th century (with Molière and Corneille), Racine was primarily a tragedian, producing plays like Phèdre, Andromaque, and Athalie, considered neoclassical masterpieces.  Racine was a dramatic poet, writing in dodecasyllabic alexandrine; the linguisitic effects that he achieved have been considered essentially impossible to capture in translation– though many have tried:  Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes into English, and Friedrich Schiller into German.  (The quest continues: poet Geoffrey Argent won the American Book Award for his 2011 attempt to translate Racine’s plays into English.)

A strict observer of the dramatic unities, Racine frustrated Antonin Artaud, who wrote (in The Theater and Cruelty), “the misdeeds of the psychological theater descended from Racine have made us unaccustomed to that immediate and violent action which the theater should possess.”  Conversely, Proust developed an earlier love of Racine “whom he considered a brother and someone very much like himself…” (Marcel Proust: A Life, by Jean-Yves Tadié, 1996).



Written by LW

December 22, 2013 at 1:01 am

Forgotten words…


From Studio Jubilee, a collection of forgotten words: Lexican…  e.g.,

More nostalgic nouns, verbs, and modifiers at Lexican.


As we appreciate history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1545 that François Rabelais received the permission of King François I to publish the Gargantua series– Gargantua and Pantagruel as we know it.  In fact, Rabelais’ wild mix of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, bawdy jokes, and songs had been circulating pseudonymously for years.

Rabelais wrote at a time of great ferment in the French language, and contributed mightily to it– both in coinage and in usage.  But his influence was even broader (Tristram Shandy, e.g., is full of quotes from Rabelais) and continues to this day via writers including Milan Kundera, Robertson Davies, and Kenzaburō Ōe.



Written by LW

September 19, 2013 at 1:01 am

Warning: pinaciphobes avoid!…


We define a phobia as ‘an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.’ You are probably aware of the more common phobias, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), and agoraphobia (fear of open places), but did you know there are also words which describe the fear of idleness, worms, and even body odour?…

Find them all at OUP’s “A list of phobias from ‘atelophobia’ to ‘zelotypophobia’” (an excerpt from which, above).

[“Pinaciphobia,” fear of lists; c.f. also: “katastichophobia”]


As we face our fears, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876 that George Bernard Shaw quit his job as a clerk in an estate office to devote himself full-time to writing.  Though his first success was as a music and literary critic, and he later co-founded the London School of Economics, he is best remembered as a dramatist, the author of over 60 plays.

It’s a measure of his gift for creating high literature that connected with mass audiences that he is the only person in history to have won both the Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and the Oscar (in 1938, for his work on the film Pygmalion, an adaptation of his play by the same name).



Written by LW

July 5, 2013 at 1:01 am


From our old friend Dante Shepherd, “Defining words that aren’t real. Yet.”  E.g…

Head-bashery (noun): like head-banging, but done by someone with no energy and rhythm; in effect, pathetic head-banging.

Juxtapolitician (noun): a political figure who automatically denounces the stance, proposal, beliefs, or achievements of his/her political opposite, just because he/she is the political opposite.

Meanderthal (noun): one who has failed the driver’s exam multiple times.

Lots more experimental lexicography at The Oxford English Fictionary


As we noodle new nouns, we might send consoling thoughts to Philo T. Farnsworth; he was born on this date in 1908.  As a Utah schoolboy, Farnsworth began to develop the design of the electronic system that became, in 1927, the world’s first all-electronic television system.  In 1931, RCA’s David Sarnoff tried to acquire Farnsworth’s patents, with the stipulation that the inventor join RCA as an employee.  When Farnsworth refused, Sarnoff backed a rival technology, sued Farnsworth, and used his considerable political clout to have the RCA system declared the standard.


Written by LW

August 19, 2012 at 1:01 am

A dictionary for these turbulent times…

In these times of proliferating online reference resources, what’s a poor scholar to do?  Dictionaries can be a particular problem: duelling definitions, eccentric enunciations…  all against a backdrop of a language that’s evolving, in both vocabulary and usage, even as we speak…

Enter Wordnik:

Wordnik is a new way to discover meaning…  Wordnik shows definitions from multiple sources, so you can see as many different takes on a word’s meaning as possible… We try to show as many real examples as possible for each word. These examples are ranked by how useful we think they are in helping you understand the meaning of a particular word, especially words that may not have traditional dictionary definitions… [Wordnik lists related words.]  Our word relationships include synonyms, hypernyms, hyponyms, words used in the same context, a reverse dictionary, and tags…

All this– plus lists, images illustrating entries, recorded pronunciations, and a word-of-the-day at Wordnik.


As we choose our words both more carefully and more confidently, we might fling a fistful of rice in celebration of the nuptials of Sadye Marks (better known as Mary Livingstone) and Benjamin Kubelsky (or Jack Benny, as audiences knew him); they were married on this date in 1927.

Mary co-starred in Benny’s fabulously-successful radio series, and became famous for her occasional flubbed lines, many ultimately as legendary as the deliberately-crafted “illogical logic” of Gracie Allen or the carefully-scripted malapropisms of Jane Ace and (as Molly in The Goldbergs) Gertrude Berg.  (Visit here for downloadable examples.)



Written by LW

January 14, 2012 at 1:01 am

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”*…

There are over 1 million words in the English language; still, all too frequently, one can’t find just the right term…  One can, of course, turn to other languages for le mot juste.  And happily, our friends at Mental Floss have provided a list to jump start the process; e.g.,

Boketto (Japanese)
The act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking.

Kummerspeck (German)
Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, “grief bacon.”

Thirteen more precisely-right words at “15 Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent.”

* Mark Twain


As we add a Larousse to our Roget’s, we might send tasty birthday wishes to Henry John Heinz, the gifted marketer who founded H.J. Heinz Co.and coined its “57 varieties” slogan.  By age 12 he was peddling produce from the family’s Pittsburg garden.  At 25, in 1869, he and a friend launched Heinz & Noble; its first product: Henry’s mother’s grated horseradish, bottled in clear glass to reveal its purity.  Heinz & Noble thrived until the bumper crops of 1875 tanked prices and led to bankruptcy.  But Heinz plunged back in, this time solo, eventually building a model factory complex along the Allegheny River.  By 1896, “The Pickle King” had become a millionaire and celebrity.


Written by LW

October 11, 2011 at 1:01 am

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