I 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.
Heroes, it sometimes seems, have been relegated to legend and myth. There are none left, none of the sort I used to associate with the name. Not in the media, anyway.
The word has been so abused in the media over the last century, tossed about in such a cavalier manner that it has lost its former credit; it has become debased language, its pith cored for showy effect, like glitter, like so many over-used superlatives have been. Its strength drained away.
Calling someone a hero today has the same punch as a teacher saying a child “lives up to his potential.”
A hero is now someone who shops wisely, drinks milk instead of pop, or drops off a bag of cat chow at the local animal shelter. I am a hero for recycling my kitchen waste, or so a label on my green bin says. There’s a gardening hero in Australia, who is called that for creating a TV show about – you guessed it – gardening. You can be a hero in your living room just by playing a video game and pushing buttons in the right order on a fake guitar.
It’s like the word awesome – so few things generate actual awe in us, but the word appears under Facebook pictures of kittens and puppies or tossed around in status posts.
Standing under the millennium-old arches of Westminster Abbey, I felt awe. I felt wonder. I felt diminished by the weight of history around me, reduced to a mere mortal by the lives that had passed through these halls before me. Awed by the sweeping majesty of it all.
Someone on social media bragging they’re awesome – appropriating a word so it merely means egotistic or happy – simply cannot compare in emotional depth to what I felt in the great cathedral, any more than my adding banana peels to the green bin is heroic.
And that’s unfortunate, because we really need a word for those people who do real, heroic deeds. Calling a firefighter who saves a child from a burning house a hero today puts him or her on the same level as me and my banana peels. And that’s not right. We need heroes to look up to, to idolize, to remind us of how important it is to act for non-selfish reasons.
Just being a good person isn’t being heroic. We used to call these people “good Samaritans” but in the age of hyperbole, we seem to have to raise the volume and make out that anyone who does a good deed, no matter how trivial, appears heroic. And in doing so, we trivialize real heroism.
There are brave, courageous people who stand up for our rights and freedoms. There are kind and compassionate people who do acts of caring and determination. There are people who are courteous, polite civil; who say please and thank you, hold doors open and don’t fly into road rage at being passed on the highway. There are people who volunteer their time to help others, advocate for the greater good, and donate money to their causes.
They’re all wonderful, kind, even brave people. But they’re not heroes.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
A recent article in The Atlantic about how our names impact our lives got me to thinking about how and why we name our children – and what they say about us, about our parents, what our names mean to others of their generation. And why are some names popular at certain times in history. Like now.
According to babycenter.com, these are the ten most popular baby names for 2013:
That just makes me feel like I’ve missed a genealogical bus somewhere. Of those 20 names, I doubt I’d name a child most of them. But that may be a generational thing; I was raised with a different set of names. Some of these names are also – from my perspective – old-fashioned. I suppose that’s the around-again effect we see in so many other cultural items (like the endless recycling of pop music tropes from the 60s and 70s…).
Still, I wouldn’t name a child a lot of things, from Crystal to Britney to River (or Dweezil or Moon Unit). I might give a girl the middle name of Yseult and a boy Tristam, but only because I would want to be able to explain the wonderful, romantic story behind those names… I wouldn’t want to burden them with these as first names.
My wife’s name, Susan – a name that I love to hear and still sounds like wind chimes to me after more than 30 years – doesn’t appear in the top 100, while my own shows up at a mere number 80. That surprises me somewhat, because at least when I was growing up, my name was a rarity and Susan was popular, at least in my travelled circles.
If we’re not disappointed are we appointed? If not distressed are we tressed? If not discombobulated are we combobulated? If not nonplussed, are we plussed? If we’re not impeccable, are we just peccable? Can we be chalant rather than nonchalant? If we don’t want to dismantle something, can we mantle it? If we don’t disfigure a painting, do we figure it? If it’s not inevitable, is it evitable? If an event doesn’t unnerve us, is it nerving? If it’s not defunct is it funct? If an online hoax isn’t debunked, can it be bunked instead?
Can we be placcable, effable, trepid, ert, ane and feckful? can I rupt the proceedings? Can any love be requited? Can any heroes be sung? If I don’t dismiss you, do I miss you? If you stop your incessant chatter, does it become cessant? If I’m not an imbecile in your eyes, am I a becile? Can a tool be wieldy?
Some of these odd-seeming words have been in our language, just fallen out of favour or replaced by other terms. Ruthful, the Word Detective tells us, was in common use in the 12th until the 14th century, although it hung around as an anachronism until the 19th century.** Ruly was coined around 1400 CE, according to World Wide Words. Tools could never be wieldy, but persons could be, in the sense of being nimble (same source).
Cousin Stephen, you will never be a saint. Isle of saints. You were awfully holy, weren’t you? You prayed to the Blessed Virgin that you might not have a red nose. You prayed to the devil in Serpentine avenue that the fubsy widow in front might lift her clothes still more from the wet street. O si, certo! Sell your soul for that, do, dyed rags pinned round a squaw. More tell me, more still!! On the top of the Howth tram alone crying to the rain: Naked women! naked women! What about that, eh?
A fubsy window? A short and stocky window.
You will likely have recognized the quote from James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Joyce coined a few words – monomyth and quark for example – but fubsy wasn’t among them. Oxford Dictionary tells us it comes from the:
…late 18th century: from dialect fubs ‘small fat person’, perhaps a blend of fat and chub
Which sounds a bit like a Johnsonian guess for its etymology rather than a precise statement.
Merriam Webster says the first recorded use is 1780, and that it means, “chubby and somewhat squat.” Collins Dictionary tells us it comes from “obsolete fubs plump person.”
Or, as the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 12th (printed) edition, defines it, “fat and squat.”
Fub shows up in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as “a plump, chubby boy.” Somewhere between that and 1597, the definition changed. In 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare had Falstaff using fub in a line to Prince Hal, meaning “fob off, cheat, rob”. And in 2 Henry IV, “fub off” is to used to mean “fob off, put off.” (according to Shakespeare’s Words by David & Ben Crystal) English poet John Marston (1576 – 1634) first used “fubbery” to mean cheating.
Somehow fub seems to have evolved from cheat to fat. Maybe they were just homonyms. Or maybe Shakespeare was just playing his usual word games.
Dacoit: noun; one of a class of criminals in India and Burma who rob and murder in roving gangs. A member of a band of armed robbers in India or Burma. A bandit. Origin: Hindi and Urdu.
I love dictionaries. I like opening them up to a random page and just reading, discovering words and uses that I didn’t know. I love finding origins of words and phrases; linguistic connections between past and present. I will happily spend hours reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, or a glossary of Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s words.
I’ll open any dictionary at random and read a page or two. I’m almost always assured I will find something new. Some, like Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, are delights to read; others are dry and dull.
“Do you read the dictionary?” French author Théophile Gautier once asked a young poet. “It is the most fruitful and interesting of books.”
Last week I bought a used copy of the Oxford Compact English Dictionary, 2005 edition, at the local used bookstore, Cover to Cover (used, but is superb condition, I should add). And when I opened it at random to page 247, I read the definition of dacoit – a word I can’t ever recall encountering before last week. Sandwiched between dachshund and dactyl. Now I know a lot more about it, thanks to a bit of research in print and online sources.
It’s still in use today, albeit not in any media I regularly read. Every reference I’ve found comes from India or Pakistan. In 2004, The Telegraph of Calcutta wrote about the violent evolution of dacoits:
Sten guns, cellphones and agents on the job ‘ the image of the Chambal dacoit has changed over the years. What hasn’t is the centuries-old cycle of violence in the region.
Dacoit, according to the two-volume Oxford Compact Dictionary, has many 19th century references for use in English, dating as far back as 1820. It’s also referred to as dacoity and dacoitery in some sources.
Wikipedia tells us the East India Company established “the Thuggee and Dacoity Department” in 1830. The ruling British enacted legislation called the “Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts” in India between 1836 and 1848. Thuggee has survived in English, reduced to the shorter “thug.”
Not that I’d have much reason to use dacoit in any form. It’s one of those imperialist-period words that wouldn’t find a place in a contemporary vocabulary. George Orwell would have known it; maybe my father uttered it sometime before he left England. I have to wonder what force is keeping it intact in a dictionary that is constantly pressured by new entries: neologisms and borrowed words from other languages that keep popping into our increasingly international, technological language.