Word by Word Book Review

When I retired from the Army I did so with very little fan fare.  My boss at the time asked me how we could celebrate my departure and if I wanted anything.  In my last few months in the building one of my activities was to rummage through lesser used portions of our office space and clean up the clutter.  One item in the clutter was a 1980’s printing of Webster’s 3rd Unabridged, A Dictionary.

I told my boss that I’d just like to take the dictionary with me and if folks wanted to write nice things on the inside couple of pages, I’d be happy as a clam.  They did, and I have very lovely sentiments on the inside few pages.

20 years in the military.  2 deployments to Iraq.  One deployment to Afghanistan.  Retirement, and I chose the dictionary.

Why?  Because I love words and the process of how they’re created and added to the language.  So, when my favorite language podcast (yes there is such a thing) featured an interview with a lexicographer, I pay attention, add the lexicographer’s book to my Audible wish list, and only just recently got to listening and finishing the book.

Wow!  What a book!

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper is an excellently narrated look at the way dictionaries are created, the controversies created by the results of their formulaic methodology, and the struggle to adapt a company to the digital age.

Calling it the Secret Life of Dictionaries is just about the most perfect name for it because the author truly exposes the system behind how these words got there!  Kory’s telling (she narrates the audio book herself) carries all the excitement and passion of someone who truly loves words and their creation.  I was doubly thankful that she narrated the book herself because the sections on pronunciation of certain sounds would not be the same had they hired out the talent.  There are some real humdingers in the text!

black and white book business close up

Kory manages to successfully navigate the reader through the subject matter with grace and encourage increased curiosity.  Many books of this subject matter or this size tend to expose the author’s laziness in writing, but Kory overcomes these with style.  Her writing was so successful that now the people I work with (I was only technically retired for three days before I started my next job) consider me even weirder than I was already.  Why?  Because I was so engaged with the book that I wanted to share?  Isn’t that just human nature?

When I shared what I was learning with my coworkers their facial expressions were priceless.  I think I’ve had more than a dozen conversations with coworkers that have gone along the lines of…

Tom, I’m reading a new book on how dictionaries are created and did you know there’s a word for that familiarity you have with a language?  It’s called Sprachgefühl.  It comes from German and it’s pretty neat that we’ve adopted it into.. [interrupted]

Wait a second!  Did you say you’re reading a book about how dictionaries are created? [facepalm]

Yes, and it’s fascinating.  Did you know that irregardless is actually a word that’s been in use since the 1700’s?  Ravel, and unravel mean the same thing!  Who knew, right?

I’m no where near close to losing my job over this, but there has been talk in the office suggesting that something must be wrong with me because I fell in love with a book about dictionaries.  It’s not my fault that when I was interviewed for my current position they never asked me what the last job gave me for a parting gift.  If they had, I would have told them.  We could have gotten this out in the open months ago.

Kory’s book warrants addition to the list of books I’d recommend to my mother, and if I’m going to recommend it to my mom, I think it’s safe to recommend it to the fair readers of this blog.  Although, I will warn my mother that her sensitivities to the less than polite words might be triggered as Kory is more free with her vernacular than my mother may be used to.  Still, I did not find the language overly aggressive or inappropriate.  It does figure that someone who is as familiar with words as a lexicographer is entitled to freely use all the words she’s had to define over the years.

abstract board game bundle business

None of this curiosity would have been possible without something snapping a few years ago when I started noticing there was a world of systems around me that had been virtually invisible.  Exploring those systems has increased my gratitude and my understanding tremendously.  Thank you, Mrs. Stamper, for sharing the system that has lead to a new appreciation for the very words I use to dress my thoughts and their shared meaning that we capture like butterflies and place gently into the dictionary.

Wonderful | Smile

Many things in life are a matter of perspective. Ronald Regan famously quipped, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.” Perspective truly makes a difference.

Miracles are also a matter of perspective and understanding the core of the word helps to explain its use over time. Miracles as matter of perspective are not always the actions of brightly singing heavenly messengers. Sometimes they are as simple as a smile or a friendly visit. In our lowest points in life who doesn’t benefit from knowing they have a friend who cares?

An outside observer, or even the friend, might not see their kind action as performing God’s work, but nonetheless it very well could be.


Miracle as a word has an interesting connected history. It comes from Old French, miracle, which can be traced back to Latin, mīrāculum (object of wonder). Then it can be traced back to mīrus (“wonderful”) and then in Pro Indo European (PIE) smeiros which means to smile with astonishment.

I find the PIE version particularly child like. As humans we love to smile when something surprises us in a positive way. Kids playing peek-a-boo comes to mind.

As adults we’re often less appreciative of surprises. We’ve traded wonder for predictability. What the word origin above shows though is that wonder, miracles, and smiling are all interconnected. As I was reading the scripture/chorus from Handel’s Messiah was in my head.

Isaiah 9

5 For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.

6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

PTSD could easily be described using the description of a warrior surrounded by confused noise in verse 5. I have seen the impact of PTSD several times and know of its caustic depths. If verse 5 is the problem, verse 6 is the cure. And look! There in the verse we see the word wonderful here capitalized, but true to the full depth of its meaning. It’s the amazement of pleasant surprise that causes one to smile.

We see it’s use again when Christ is born in Luke 2:

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

Thus the scripture in Isaiah was fulfilled describing the birth of the Lamb of God and the story of that great event is one that should cause us to smile with astonishment.

Revelations and miracles are like playing peek-a-boo with heaven.

Smuggling English

Since Solo: A Star Wars Story is due in theaters soon, and the main character is considered an established expert in the smuggling trade, I’m wondering how many smuggling oriented words will be included in the movie.

tony-robinsonIt should be no surprise to the routine readers of this blog (thank you mom and dad) that I love words (I have a favorite lexicographer), fonts, and other things nerdy.  I was recently watching Sir Tony Robinson‘s series on Walking Through History where he walks across England and shares the history of the paths he travels on.  The show is rather well done and while I could spend the time talking about the interesting nuggets of history he discusses (like how the Bolin family were vying for political influence with Henry VIII) instead, I’d like to discuss a subject that was only tangentially introduced during the show.  Words related to smuggling!

Yes!  Tony spent an entire episode walking the terrain of England where smuggling was common place and when an activity is common place words often emerge to help people communicate about it.  After all, I don’t think we’d have ended up with such a lovely word as gongoozle if it hadn’t been for the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.  After all, you need canals in order to gongoozle and so it’s highly unlikely that a word like gongoozle would have emerged in an area where canals were few and far between.  The word is British in origin not Turkish–although feel free to ask me about the word zarf sometime.

The Coast Is Clear— this term came out of the smuggling trade as goods were transported between various parts of the world and would land on the English coast.  Whoever was the lookout, would see if any officers were in the area and if there were none, the call would go out that the coast is clear.

above-board— this is another term Tony mentioned in the show.  When smuggling something it was common practice to put the cargo below the boards of the ship’s deck.  Keeping things above-board meant that there was not hint of dishonesty in the practice.

Bootleg— in America small items were stored in the gap of a persons boot and America not only gave birth to a consolidated constitution, but also this term for transporting illicit items.

Rum-Running— while one might think of this word originating through the failed American experiment with prohibition, the term actually precedes that terrible experiment by several hundred years.  Rum-running first became a term in the 1600’s in response to policy of selective taxation passed through parliament.

Some of our words for illicit materials were themselves smuggled from other nations.

Contraband— was smuggled from Italian and Spanish Origins

Illicit— was stolen from Latin. And of course, you can’t smuggle things without having a means of transportation and for that one may want to use a

Corsair— (a fast ship used for piracy) which of course is a word with Latin and French roots.  As French words seem to give me the most trouble with pronunciation I’ll close the post here with a scowl as I remember how many times I forgot the ending -et in French words sounds like an -a.

So, this is a quick way for me to capitalize on the popularity of an upcoming movie and nerd out over a few words.  Thanks mom and dad for reading.  If anyone else happens to be here at this point and thinks any of these are in error feel free to comment, but beware I might label you a snoutband.


CYCOPEDE: Erinaceous

Do you ever have a conversation that’s been difficult because no matter how hard you try you can only see the person as being prickly?  Of course, we know that the right thing to do in those circumstances is to step away from the conversation and re-engage later.  The hard part is that usually, we’re so passionate about what we’re discussing that stepping away is hard to do.  This is one of those times where you can win and the dictionary can help.

Just accuse the person your talking to of being erinaceous.  The word is obscure enough it will likely get their attention and in their moment of being caught off guard by your superior vocabulary you can suggest that the conversation pause until both parties look up the word and agree to not be so erinaceous.

What does erinaceous mean?  It’s a delightful sounding word (Erin-A-she -us) that means “like a hedgehog.”  With such a lovely sounding and apt description, it makes you wonder why this word isn’t used more often to describe people’s behavior online?