Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dinosaurs & Dictionaries

I adore words. I think most writers do. We thrill to the sound of a new one and instinctively store it away for use at a later date, like a dog with a bone. Long ago I promised myself I would always look up words I didn’t recognize. I’ve pretty much adhered to that dictum ever since. For many years that meant keeping a dictionary nearby; and later, as my writing ambition grew, I added a thesaurus. But with the advances in technology during the past decade, my word-finding tools have evolved, sadly turning my treasured reference books into dusty relics of a bygone era - dinosaurs in a digital world.

My favorite: a 1951 edition of Webster's Unabridged New Twentieth Century Dictionary lies open at all times; tempting me to browse through its 3000 illustrated, fact-filled pages. A friend's mother gave it to me when she decided her children were "done looking up words." It has been truly loved. It is covered with children's penciled scribbles, ink pen artwork on the front, a few multiplication figures, the signature of one of her sons, and even a cigarette burn. I consider it priceless.

The earliest piece of technology that began the displacement of my reference books came when I purchased my first computer and discovered the thesaurus attached to my word processing program. What ease! What joy! What fun! Then the Internet exploded into the universe and I began to research words (definition, spelling, usage, etc.) through online resources like Merriam-Webster Online and Oxford Dictionaries Online and literally hundreds of other sources. OMG!

What is truly amazing is the number of viewers who visit these Internet sites. According to Merriam-Webster, America’s leading provider of language information for over 150 years, they now reach 40 million viewers each month through their free online websites. Who even knew 40 million people look for a word every month? I certainly don’t picture that many people grabbing a tattered old dictionary off the shelf and searching for a word. Maybe this technology is a good thing for more than just writers looking for that perfect word…

And speaking of that perfect word, I guarantee you’ll find that and more during a visit to the Merriam-Webster website. In addition to America’s finest dictionary and thesaurus, you’ll find a Spanish-English Dictionary, a Medical Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica. You’ll find a Test Your Vocabulary Quiz (I got 3700 points. You?); and entertaining Word Games like Jumble Crosswords, Deep Sea Word Search, Fowl Words, Eat Your Words, Jumble Jong, Word Sodoku, and even one called Writer’s Block.

You’ll find word activities for kids, a link for a Word-of-the-Day application, and a section called New Words & Slang. Some recent entries:

  • Facebooker: a person who uses the social networking site Facebook
  • Miles per plug (MPP): a measure used to quantify number of miles that an electric plug-in motor vehicle can travel without using gas
  • Thrifting: the practice of spending money carefully
  • Brolation: a friendship between two men
There's no way you would ever find all that in your reference books, no matter how many you had. The world has changed.

The M-W website is the perfect place to hunt for unusual words like canoodle, brontophobia, katzenjammer, flibbertigibbet and whiffle; or ubiquitous – one of the most searched for words on their website. I went into literary overload seeing so many new words. And I'm not the only one. The superfluity of unrecognized words in this post actually caused my spellchecker to run out of of red ink! (Just kidding.) Oh, and where and when can I use logorrhea: an excessive flow of words? That’s so much classier than saying someone has “diarrhea of the mouth.” Wait, logorrhea and diarrhea rhyme – maybe I can use them in a poem! Hmmm...I better settle down.

A shelf of prehistoric treasures.
More of my literary dinosaurs flanked by the owl bookends
given me by my siblings upon my college graduation.

Anyway, hope you'll take a minute and stop by the M-W website. I know you won’t be disappointed. Instead of spending countless hours scouring reference books like we did in “the old days,” you’ll uncover a mind-boggling world of words (like those below) with just a few clicks of your mouse; and a good writer can always use another word.

In the meantime, hang onto those old reference books. Who knows, like the dinosaurs, they might turn into black gold someday. Another thing to keep in mind: where will you look up a word if the Internet goes down? I know mine aren't going to the local tar pit any time soon.

10 Charming Words for Nasty People

  • Ruffian
  • Scalawag
  • Knave
  • Rapscallion
  • Reprobate
  • Cad
  • Scapegrace
  • Hooligan
  • Scamp
  • Wretch

Words You May Hardly Believe: Top 10 Words with Bizarre Meanings

  1. Whiffle: to produce a whistling or puffing sound; wind gust
  2. Spanghew: to throw violently into the air (especially a frog)
  3. Axinomancy: devining guilt or innocence by balancing an ax on a pole
  4. Breeches Part: a female playing a male part in a play
  5. Poltophagy: chewing food until it becomes porridge
  6. Lipogram: a writing without a certain letter (like no "r" or "o")
  7. Crowkeeper: person who is in charge of the crows
  8. Gyascutus: imaginary beast who walked on hillsides and was thus lop-sided (thought to be a near relative of the whang-doodle and snipe)
  9. Hapax Legomenon: a word occurring only once in a document or collection of writing (something said only once)
  10. Mytacism: excessive or wrong use of the letter “m”
Our Greatest Hits: People’s Top 10 Favorite Words

  1. Defenestration: to throw a person or thing out of a window
  2. Flibbertigibbet: a silly flighty person
  3. Kerfuffle: disturbance, fuss
  4. Persnickety: fussy about small details; fastidious
  5. Callipygian: having shapely buttocks
  6. Serendipity: luck that takes the form of finding something not looked for
  7. Mellifluous: having a smooth rich flow
  8. Discombobulated: upset, confused
  9. Palimpsest: writing material used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased; layers apparent beneath the surface
  10. Sesquipedalian: long; characterized by the use of long words

Words for Uncommon Things That Scare:

Top 10 Unusual Phobias

  1. Haphephobia: fear of being touched
  2. Doraphobia: dread of touching the skin or fur of an animal
  3. Eremophobia: dread of being alone
  4. Ergophobia: a fear of or aversion to work
  5. Hypnophobia: the morbid fear of sleep
  6. Brontophobia: an abnormal fear of thunder
  7. Kakorrhaphiophobia: an abnormal fear of failure
  8. Ophidiophobia: an abnormal fear of snakes
  9. Taphephobia: fear of being buried alive
  10. Phobophobia: an excessive fear of acquiring a phobia

Words for Ideas Worth Thinking About

  1. Zeitgeist: the spirit of the time; the general moral, intellectual, and cultural climate of an era
  2. Spirit de l’escalier: witty remark thought of too late, on the way home; the clever comment you wish you had delivered.
  3. Schadenfreude: enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others
  4. Apophasis: the raising of an issue by claiming not to mention it. I’m not going to mention…
  5. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: the logical mistake that one thing caused another just because it happened first.
  6. Sisyphean: requiring continual and often ineffective effort
  7. Dockdolager: something that ends or settles a matter; a decisive blow or answer.
  8. Zeugma: the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words usually applying it to each in a different sense. She lost her ticket and her temper.
  9. Beckmesser: a critic or teacher of music characterized by timid and excessive reliance on rules
  10. Katzenjammer: distress, depression or confusion; a discordant clamor.


elizabethbrinton said...

Wow! Did I ever love this post. No matter what I say in this comment, I will suffer a spirit de l'escalier. Knave is still in common usage for me, although I add the word scurvy for particular emphasis. Oh how I love words. "Let me count the ways..." Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Paul Schwerdt said...

Now that's one really useful post.

If anyone has need to translate, I've found that the Google translator (
is also a useful program, if you have at least a reading skill in a foreign language. I've tested it on the two I'm most familiar with, Latin and Spanish. With a few minor adjustments it does pretty well. Last week I used it to translate a sermon I had to preach from English to Spanish. It worked well, according to a Spanish speaking lady at church.

I bet you'd come up with a pretty impressive library if all of you put together some of your oldest and most treasured books. Mary, how often do you crack open Black's Law Dictionary? :-)

Paul (a southern California fan of Writing North Idaho)

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Outstanding post, Mary Jane ! And thanks, Paul for becoming a fan of WNI ! I appreciate it :)

Jennifer Rova said...

I, too, love words, the funnier the better. Great post giving me more "ammunition" for my writing and adding to scintillating conversation at dinner parties. Good job!

Jan Cline said...

I love those old dictionaries and encyclopedias and reference books. But it is good to keep up with the times. They sure look good on a bookcase though.

Bay Views said...

My head is spinning. Hey, I didn't know you had a blog. Want to trade addresses for our side bars?

Mary Jane Honegger said...

Thanks for all the comments, guys! I think we all are as one blogette recently said, "birds of a feather." Hey Paul, I pick up specific dictionaries (law, medical, etc.) whenever I find them. (Second-hand of course.) I've used the Black's Law Dictionary twice for background on stories I've written and I'm thinking of a screenplay that might cause me to crack it open again. It's fun finding a word or two that makes me sound like I know what I'm talking about. And, Herb, great to hear from a fellow Spokesman-Review alumni! I'm sure we can swap links. I'll get back to you.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Kindred spirit! I love, love, love words. and collect them.

When I was young, I used to think that flourescent, jubilee, and tangerine would be beautiful names for girls!lol

Peggy Strack said...

Love a blog where you learn something. This one is a winner. thanks!