‘In the past you had to look in the bulkiest, most expensive dictionaries to find out. Now, in this informative and hugely entertaining new book, over 1,000 fascinating words – erotic, poetic and abusive, from ABAXIAL to ZOOPHILIAC – are clearly defined (with examples from major writers). If you are in pursuit of FULGENT LOGODAEDALY (dazzling skill with words) you can enrich your INCONDITE (unpolished) prose. Better still, you’ll be able to impress your friends with your brilliant vocabulary without making a complete BALATRON of yourself!’
So said George Stone Saussy III. And might I say, what an incredible name that is! Exactly the kind of name you would expect the writer of the Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Words to have.
What neither George Stone Saussy III nor Penguin Books knew when the dictionary was first published in 1984, was that in just a few short years the main-streaming of the internet and the world-wide web would irrevocably change the way that people accessed and shared information and knowledge.
When I look at the yellowing front cover of the dictionary, and flick through the contents of the first few pages, I find myself conflicted. On the one hand I love books. Real, inhale-as-you-walk-into-a-bookshop, hold-in-your-hands books. The unique aroma of paper and ink, the particular joy of knowing a book so well that you can turn instinctively to the sections and pages you most love.
On the other hand, I love the almost addictive instant gratification that comes with knowing that you can type virtually any question, any word, in to a search engine and find an answer. What does this word mean? What is the derivation of that word? Where has the other word been famously quoted? There may be a huge mine of information to search through. Or there may be almost nothing. You may know within seconds of reading the content that, in fact, the writer knows even less about the subject than you do! But it is a very rare thing indeed to be entirely unable to find any kind of answer.
I found the dictionary fascinating, but those ‘examples from major writers’ George Stone Saussy III mentioned? Well, there were some heavy-weights in there for sure, but the net had not been cast very wide. Theroux, Nabakov, Koster, Gardner, Burgess…and a small handful of others. The same writers, and the same books, cropping up time and time again.
Not that the readers would have minded, I’m sure. After all, it might well be a limited range of sources, but it was far quicker and easier for the reader than the alternatives. Before the internet, there was no quick and easy way to get a reference list of the literary uses of ‘fulgent’. A few minutes on the laptop wasn’t an option. It was a laborious process of cross-referencing likely sources in books, libraries collections and print archives, drawing on time-consuming, hard-earned literary knowledge, and information from contacts in the know.
If the same book were to be produced now I imagine it would be considerably bigger, with a more expansive and diverse range of quotes. And yet in all likelihood it would be no more arduous to produce. Perhaps less so.
The other thing that really struck me was the transience of everyday language. The ephemeral nature of its social and cultural relevance – almost unavoidable in today’s full tilt, social media age – was equally relevant, if less commented upon in the 1980s. When it was published, the dictionary was intended as a collection of ‘curious and interesting’ words. Was it warmly and widely received as such? Writers of reference publications aren’t usually particularly renowned for having their fingers on the pulse of popular culture. I would imagine that even then it was aimed at a fairly niche market. The English language moves so fast. Certainly today I think it would be fair to assume that many would-be readers might substitute ‘curious and interesting’ for ‘stuffy and obsolete’.
I don’t count myself in those numbers. In fact, I’ll admit to an embarrassingly wide streak of geek when it comes to words. I am an all out logophile. A linguaphile even. So inevitably, once I got started on the dictionary I couldn’t help but work my way through the alphabet. Before I knew it I was on ‘K’, it was way past bedtime for a school night, and my husband was looking at me beseechingly, imploring me to stop quoting to him and turn out the bedside light.
Rather than drive my poor, long-suffering husband to the brink of sleep deprivation and the lexical equivalent of snow blindness, I have come up with a plan. I am going to pour it all out here! A cathartic means of managing my compulsion hopefully.
One word, each Wednesday, taken from a real, actual book. With a short description, interesting usage in a quote, or a brief explanatory history behind the word. Oh, and a suitable accompanying image. Twenty six words over the same number of weeks. That’s not a lot to manage is it? Time will tell. Being a conventional kind of girl I’m going with the Roman alphabet and kicking off with ‘A’ next week. My mind is whirring already with the possibilities! If you fancy joining me, please do! I would be thrilled to hear your choice of word. Linguaphiles of the world unite!