Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Logophiles, Unite!

I remember from my school days that occasionally a sadistic teacher would make unruly students copy pages from the dictionary while the rest of us went out for recess. And maybe once or twice I have met people who read the dictionary, just for fun.

Well, now I have come across a man who tackled the ambitious project of reading through the Oxford English Dictionary -- all 20 volumes -- in one year! Ammon Shea is a logophile, a word lover. In the introduction to his book Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, he says, "Some people collect matchbox cars or comic books. Others collect more obviously valuable things, such as rare paintings or cars. Most of these collections are made up of tangible objects, things to which one can assign some sort of monetary value. I collect words."

For the past ten years this gentleman has been reading dictionaries -- all kinds of them -- with great relish. He would, in fact, be happy to read every one of the many dictionaries and word books he owns and then start over again. As for the Oxford English Dictionary, he says, "If you are interested in vocabulary that is both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless, read on, and enjoy the efforts of a man who is in love with words. I have read the OED so that you don't have to." And then, from Abluvion (n.) Substance or things that are washed away to Zyxt (v.) To see, he catalogs for his readers his favorite words that he came across and gives his own definition for them. What logophile would not be happified (v.) To be made happy by such a book?

Maybe the words themselves don't interest you as much as their story: who first used the word or phrase? why? what does it really mean? I've just found the man who can help you with that too! His name is Evan Morris, and he is the Word Detective. He grew up the son of the editor in chief of a publishing company in New York. Mr and Mrs Morris, enterprising people, also had a home business of preparing pamphlets to help people improve their vocabulary, and from an early age Evan and his siblings processed requests for these booklets and stuffed them in return envelopes. Living with people whose bread and butter was words, he absorbed a love for them himself.

For 35 years William Morris, Evan's father, wrote a syndicated newspaper column called Words, Wit and Wisdom. When he was ready to quit the column he announced his intention to his grown children, adding that Words, Wit and Wisdom was kaput -- unless one of his children wanted to take it over. Without intending to, Evan volunteered. For the past twenty years he has been the Word Detective, sleuthing out the origin of words and phrases that people would like to know. His book presents many of these words and the results of his research, accompanied by much tongue-in-cheek humor.

In one entry he explains that the name Idaho comes from Idahi, "which is what the Kiowa Apache tribe called their Comanche neighbors. Curiously enough, Idaho was first proposed as the name for what is now the state of Colorado. On the other hand, for some reason, folks originally wanted to call Idaho Montana." 

And maybe you already knew that it was American Civil War General Ambrose Burnside whose facial hair -- a mustache, a shaved chin and cheek whiskers -- was the inspiration for the term sideburns. Prior to sideburns, the fashionable man's face was clean-shaven except for chin whiskers, which made him look like a male goat and was called a goatee.

If words are your thing, these books need to be on your reading list. And if you have any favorite words or word meanings you'd like to share, pass them my way!

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