As a young boy doing my homework while staying over with a favorite aunt, I was puzzled by a word and asked her where her dictionary was. She looked at me with befuddlement and finally said she didn’t have one. I thought that odd, but continued to ponder away at the word “sundry” which I also thought odd, and just assumed in my youthful innocence that it was simply a misspelling for “Sunday.”
I’ve always had lots of dictionaries lying about, even foreign ones since my late wife was a professional translator. Somewhere hidden out of sight are a couple of vintage Romanian and Moldovan dictionaries that once revealed deep secrets to her. We also have French, German, Spanish, and Hebrew dictionaries lying about. Prize in the house is my Rubenesque two-book volume of the abridged Oxford English Dictionary that takes up more than its share of space and weighs down a sizable side stand. When I was an undergraduate and working in the English Library at our university, I had to keep the twenty some volumes (as of the mid 1960s) of the complete and unabridged set neat and tidy. I read once where a fellow with time on his hands had read through both volumes of the abridged version from cover to cover. Dictionaries of such literary weight are fun and one can get distracted reading some of the usages, but to go straight through from A to Z seems a tad overdoing it.
To my delight I have recently been directed back to paging through Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, a caustic account of his own definitions of ideas and the words behind them. Originally published in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book, it features Bierce’s witty and often ironic spin on many common English words. According to the preface of the book, the editors say the “dictionary was begun in a weekly paper in 1881 and was continued in a ‘desultory’ way and at long intervals until 1906.” For reasons not entirely clear but having something to do with not offending ladies of the church, the title was changed and the word “Devil” expunged.
Of course we have the lovely word “desultory” to describe Bierce’s rather halfhearted way of compiling it. He either lacked an overall plan or purpose or just enjoyed jumping about from one subject to another. Only by consulting the dictionary, of course, would one know that “desultory” comes from the Latin “desultorius,” relating to a vaulter or in a literal sense “skipping around.”A friend recently sent me one of those emails which are supposed to make you feel good or smile in the way that kitten pictures make up a lot of Facebook entries. This message purported to list the “thirty two most beautiful words in the English language.” I would have chosen “Jack Daniels on the rocks” for five of them, but my choice was not included. Words such as “iridescence,” “ethereal,” “aurora” and “ineffable” took the top billing. Just as I was about to yawn and agree with my auntie who didn’t need no stinkin’ dictionary to tell her it was Sunday, I chanced upon “sondor,” a made-up word sporting the meaning, “the realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Wow, why hadn’t I ever crossed paths with this word?
In following a few leads, I quickly discovered my trail led to something called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Who could not find room on the side table for such an addition! Before I knew it, my vocabulary was expanding by the syllable. Next description totally seduced me:
“opia, the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable–their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque–as if you were peering through a hole in the door of a house, able to tell that there’s someone standing there, but unable to tell if you’re looking in or looking out.”
Now that’s a good word to use in your profile if you’re posting a lure on one of the dating sites. Next to jump out was “onism,” which at first I thought was a form of the self-abusive “Onan,” which Dorothy Parker claimed she named her parakeet because it kept spilling its seed. But alas “onism” is a handy way to remind yourself how little of the world you’ll ever really experience.
The dictionary is the brain child of John Koenig (which by the way means king in German, according to my dictionary) who felt the need to write a compendium of invented words to fill various holes he perceived in the language. His dictionary is a long listing of words he’s made up to describe the awkward moments in life when something is happening to you but you can’t think of the name for it It’s great fun to leaf through. A favorite is “avenoir,” the ability to see memories in advance. What an intriguing idea and much better than sitting through Wheel of Fortune and wondering all the while why are we spinning away our Saturday nights watching this retro nonsense. The dictionary provides a perfectly good example of what one lives through in such a moment:
“We take it for granted that life moves forward. But you move as a rower moves, facing backwards: you can see where you’ve been, but not where you’re going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way…”
Sounds good to me just never to have to see Pat Sajak again.
Tiring over the saccharine definitions of the “most beautiful words” (I gave up when I came to “the strange wistfulness of used bookshops which are somehow infused with the passage of time” to define the made-up word “vellichor”), I was delighted this morning when I read a weekly Sunday collection of quotes provided by a most literate and gentlemanly chap named Mardy Grothe. Today’s column featured ways of looking at and describing “marriage.” One good metaphorical one came from Gloria Steinem who said, “In fact, women’s total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage.” Dr. Mardy offered up this observation: “Marriage is a glue of unpredictable adhesiveness.” Another came from Charles Caleb Colton, an otherwise unknown early nineteenth century British eccentric cleric who quipped, “Marriage is a feast where the grace is sometimes better than the dinner.”
These were the kinds of definitions that made me grin and sent me back to Bierce for more tooth and nail scratchings of the soul. We could use the “old gringo” in today’s world to put some of our politicians and their sayings in the right perspective. When I read the latest nonsense about going to war with Iran, I thought immediately of the apt word “jingoism” (interestingly of unknown derivation). This column, which actually appeared in The Washington Post, was written by some chicken hawk who is quick to want to take us to war while he hides comfortably at home under his bed. Where else to find a verbal response but to turn to Bierce who was quick to poke holes in the views of the pompous and hair brained of his era. If he were still alive, I think he would apply his definition of “logic” to this screed:
“The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of human misundertanding. The basis of logic is the synonym of the syllogism, consisting of a major and a minor premise and a conclusion–thus:
“Major Premise: Sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times as quickly as one man.
“Minor Premise: One man can dig a post-hole in sixty seconds.
“Conclusion: Sixty men can dig a post hole in one second.”
Sounds to me also like a perfect summary of the recent letter nearly sixty of our esteemed Republican Senators sent to Iran. And lest we forget, jingoism often leads to confrontations where people actually die, as they have on all sides in recent years in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and perhaps Iran if some get their way. Of course, they won’t be aware of Bierce’s definition of a corpse which is “a person who manifests the highest possible degree of indifference that is consistent with a civil regard for the solicitude of others.” If only we at times showed a bit more civil regard for the solicitude of others.
And speaking of politicians, here’s Bierce’s definition of people sometimes defined as “odious reptiles,” with no offense meant to reptiles: “An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wiggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.” Anyone you know?
And in case we forget, politicians need something called “patriots” to keep them afloat when they start snuggling up to Netanyahu and fretting over the perils facing us today. In this collection, Bierce calls such a person,
“One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.”
Of course, his view of the entirety of politics also falls within this arena, which nails the second oldest profession: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
When the news screens are filled with pious and somber Solons telling us what we should worry about and what steps we should take to make us secure, we can only be reminded of Bierce’s definition of “sophistry”: “The controversial method of an opponent, distinguished from one’s own by superior insincerity and fooling. This method is that of the later Sophists, a Grecian sect of philosophers who began by teaching wisdom, prudence, science, art and, in brief, whatever men ought to know, but lost themselves in a maze of quibbles and a fog of words.”
To sum up all my wanderings, I guess I’m what Bierce would call a “cynic,” which he said was a “blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.” I’ll have to keep an eye out for clear and present dangers.
I hope you have been amused and inspired enough to go sauntering through your own dictionaries in search of good words and expressions that will put a keen edge on your day and how you view the world about us. I just beg your patience and hope you don’t think of me the way John Updike does a certain group of tedious people who feel a need to preach and teach: “A healthy adult male bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”