Johnson’s words

Samuel JohnsonI have recently been reading through the David Crystal anthology of words from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (Penguin, 2006), attempting to cross-reference it with entries in the Jack Lynch anthology (Levenger Press, 2004), comparing how the two editors chose their selections, and to see how the book designers chose to present them. Yes, I know: reading dictionaries isn’t a common pastime, but if you love words, then you do it.

In part, I’m doing so for the sheer delight of the reading (Johnson’s wit shines through in so many of the entries), and as a measure of the differences in book design, but also with an odd project in mind: The Word-of-the-day From Johnson. I had the notion of transcribing a single word at random every day, and posting it online, on and social media. Not something that seems to have been done before, as far as I can tell.

I’ve previously written about how much I enjoy Johnson’s dictionary, and how I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading, not merely bibliophiles, logophiles and lexicographers. However, there is no reasonably-priced version of the complete dictionary with its 40,000-plus entries, just various selections. As good as the abridgments are, readers will soon ache, as I do, to read more than the limited number of definitions provided in these.

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Books, writers, words, and competencies

Oxford English DictionaryI have always believed that any good, competent and credible writer can be judged (if judge people we must, and yet we do) by the books on his or her desk. Yes, books: printed hardcopy, paper and ink. I’ll go into why books are vastly superior to online sources a bit later (although I suspect my readers already know why…).

Although I am no longer in the media or much of an active writer these days, I believe I can still determine the craft, the credibility and dedication of a writer simply by a quick glance at their library. That’s because good writers have a library to which they refer. Words, and words about words, matter to them.

For a writer or editor not to be passionate about words, not to continue to read and learn about them, not to to delight in them, is like an architect not to be passionate about wood and steel. Or a musician not to be passionate about the materials of which the instrument is constructed. A cook not to be passionate about the ingredients that make up the dish. Good writers care about words. This is true whether the writer be in advertising, technical writing, PR, journalism, a blogger, a poet or a novelist.

And it’s not just words by themselves, but how they play together, how they glide or grate, how they tangle or spin. Good writers also care about grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. Even the typefaces matter. If these things don’t, matter, to paraphrase Truman Capote, they’re not writers, just typists.

There are four essential books every writer and editor needs on a desk, or at least within reach: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, and a usage guide. Anyone’s claim to be a writer or journalist without these is suspect. However, which ones they chose is also important to consider.

But before I look into these categories, let me explain about books vs. online sources, and why books are superior. And this advice applies not only to people who write for a living, but to bloggers, aspiring novelists, academics working on dissertaions – anyone who writes regularly or for pleasure.

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Of dictionaries, memories, and friends

Johnson's DictionaryWhen a copy of this selection from Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary arrived last week, I was delighted, and immediately reminded of my late, and well-loved friend, Bill. He would have appreciated the book, chuckled over Johnson’s witty definitions, delighted in the words at play. We would have sat around the kitchen counter, alternately reading random definitions from the book, in between sips of wine.

Like every good writer I’ve ever known, Bill loved words, puns, wit, and the interplay of language.

Sadly, Bill died of esophageal cancer late last year, the same cancer that took my father a few years earlier. A nasty, painful, flesh-wasting disease.  Because of that, Bill and I never got to sit down and share our thoughts about this book over a glass of wine, as we had done many times over many different books, before. I saw him a couple of weeks before his death, as he lay, bedridden, in palliative care. A thin shadow of the man who used to come up for long weekends to spend time with us.

Bill was a passionate reader and we shared many books and interests in common; especially those on Napoleonic and English history. He had a passion for British naval history, and Jane Austen’s life and times, and he was a fount of knowledge about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He could quote Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Austen. He introduced us to numerous BBC dramas, comedies, and specials, and he was generous in lending his DVDs of them. He had a musical streak and we played guitar and ukulele together. And, of course, he loved words.

I was reading through this book the other night, and wondered how Johnson himself felt about friendship and death. James Boswell was his biographer, friend and companion late in his life, but did they share the same sort of closeness as I had with Bill? Boswell went off on a trip to Scotland when Johnson was sick, and was away when the latter died, in 1784. How did Johnson feel about Boswell’s absence, or Boswell and being so far away when his friend died?

Boswell’s comment on hearing of the death was, “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up.” I felt similarly, when Barbara, Bill’s wife, called to tell me of passing, last year. And I felt relieved, not that he was gone, but that his suffering was finally over. I am not ashamed to admit I cried at the news.

I’d known Bill since the late 1970s-early ’80s, back when we both worked on InfoAge magazine, years even before I met Susan. Many the evening back then we stayed up late and talked, sometimes argued, and drank our wine while playing chess, go, or some wargame – at which he almost always won. He was the smartest, funniest man I ever met and my time with him – our time, really, since he was a friend to both of us – was precious.

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The dictionary of delight

Johnson, a la BlackadderMohocks, Samuel Johnson informed us in 1755, was the “name of a cruel nation of America given to ruffians who infested, or rather were imagined to infest, the streets of London.” Moky meant dark, as in weather. Gallimatia was nonsense; talk without meaning. Commination was a threat; a denunciation of punishment, or of vengeance. Tachygraphy was the art of quick writing. Eftsoons meant soon afterwards. Saltinbanco was a quack or a mountebank. A dotard was a man whose age impaired his intellects (no Donald Trump jokes, please).

A lexicographer is a “harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” So reads the self-deprecating entry in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.  It’s a wonderful book to read even today, and not only for those few of us who delight in reading dictionaries.

Reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary is, for anyone interested in words and history, a delightful, entertaining experience. Johnson’s wit and intelligence come through in every entry, more so when you consider it was a one-man project that took eight years to complete. A truly remarkable accomplishment. 

And it remained the basis of all subsequent dictionaries and remained in print right up until the absolute crown of dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary (compilation began in 1857, but  it didn’t start publishing until 1884, and the full dictionary itself did not see print until 1928!)

Johnson’s work is also a window into the literary and social world of the 18th century as seen through the language. Johnson was contemporary with Adam Smith,  Edward Gibbon,  Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Rousseau, Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire and many other great authors and thinkers. It was also the era of political upheaval: both the French and American revolutions erupted.

If you’ve seen the wonderfully funny Blackadder episode about Johnson’s dictionary (Ink and Incapability), you get a bit of the sense of how much fun a dictionary can be. Who can forget Blackadder’s contrafibularity? Anaspeptic? Interfrastically? Frasmotic? You probably even tried to look them up in a more modern dictionary (yes, of course I did…).

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Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.
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Storytelling cubes

You don’t expect Wal Mart to be the source for literary tools, but if you amble into the section crammed with toys, you can pick up a set of Rory’s Story Cubes for just $10 (the base set). Now, I realize these are meant as a creative game for children and/or families (marked ages 8+), but they are actually an ingenious little tool for plot development and ideas in storytelling. And for some exercises in creative thinking.

Wait, you say: they’re just dice with pictures. Can pictures alone make a story? Well, yes: just look at Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: from point to point (I mentioned this in an earlier post) – composed “…entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood.” And on Indigo’s site as, “A book without words, recounting a day in the life of an office worker, told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life.”

No words at all. But Xu’s book is not so much a story as a rather detailled diary of a day in one person’s life. Get up, dress, go to work, have coffee… it’s not the stuff of high drama. It’s rather mundane once you figure it out.

And reading it is as much an exercise in puzzle solving as anything else. With each line parsed, you translate each symbol into a reasonable syntax and grammar so it makes verbal sense. Sometimes you have to ‘rewrite’ it in your head to make it scan properly in something that approximates English (or whatever your native language is, because one of the points he makes with this book is that the chosen symbols are ‘universal’). In fact, while there is a clear narrative, it’s not that hard to revision it by giving alternate meaning to some of the symbols. There’s a companion volume I recommend you also get if the original intrigues you.

But his point is that we can communicate with something other than words or writing. I agree, albeit not as well or as richly as we can with words.

Anyway, I bought a set of Story Cubes for my grandkids, and snuck one into the cart for myself. Only this month, on a trip to Toronto, did I get a set of the company’s “action” cubes and finally get around to tinkering with them (in part because I started re-examining William Cook’s bizarre, intriguing book, Plotto) and the nature of procedurally-created narrative (here’s an excellent piece about that, by the way…)

First a brief description of the base set: nine six-sided dice, each with a simple, different image engraved on each side (a total of 54 images – you can see them all on Pinterest). There are instructions for three types of games: one person to make up a ‘once upon a time’ story from the results of rolling all nine dice; one person to make up a theme-based story from the dice and one in which multiple players contribute to a collective story.

The packaging copy promises more than ten million combinations, based on the simple calculation of 6^9. That seems a bit over-stated, but perhaps that suggests combinations from the dice being laid out in any order, not simply based on the order of throwing.*

The images on the faces are fairly obvious, but a few might cause some confusion depending on your cultural experiences. The letter “L” inside a box is the British symbol for Learner (as in learning to drive – the company is from England). There’s a scarab beetle, an abacus and what seems a compass rose of sorts (see it in the picture of the package, above). Then there’s that slightly creepy shadow monster (in the topmost picture, far right bottom) and something that may be a demon or dragon (see left image).

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