Saturday, December 11, 2010

My new $295 dictionary

I can generally gauge the foolhardiness of any impulsive purchase by the sound my wife makes when I tell her about it.
It’s the same involuntary gasp she makes when a deer jumps out in front of her car.
When I tell her I just spent $295 for a dictionary I can’t hold, can’t own and will only be able to access for 12 months, it’ll sound like a 14-point buck just appeared three-car lengths from her front bumper.
The color will drain from her face and she’ll swear I’ve made a grave mistake, one in a long line that’ll continue to ensure my poverty.
She already considers me something of a dictionary polygamist. Besides computer spell checkers and myriad on-line freebies, I already own three dog-eared dictionaries. 
So why did I need to spend nearly $300 on a subscription to the on-line version of the Oxford English Dictionary? 
As I’ve mentioned before, my sole professional ambition is now to get one of my 58 (and counting) coined words in a reputable dictionary. 
My theory is that writing one really good word that will last an eternity will be more gratifying than writing a 75,000-word bestseller that will be yanked from the shelves in time for next summer’s beach reads.
And, geez, just do the lazy man’s math: one word versus 75,000 words.
It’s a no brainer.
There are 1,803 books that fit the description “dictionary” in the august Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.
There are bartender dictionaries for mixologists, medical dictionaries for physicians, plant dictionaries for those with botanical bents. There’s even an “Equine Dictionary.”
Who knew horses had vocabularies so advanced they’d find themselves stumped in pastoral conversation? I imagine it would be great fun to watch frustrated ponies trying to turn pages.
But what is known as the OED is the Mt. Everest of them all. The elegant 20-volume hard cover weighs 137.72 pounds and sells for a whopping $1,165. It’s the granddaddy of all dictionaries containing the definitions to more than 600,000 words (the average person knows and uses just 5,000 words).
In just a few days it’s become the cerebral staple of my web surfing. I love sleuthing the history of unusual words, when they were formed and how their meaning has shifted over the years.
For instance, “pussyfoot” is a word that tips its hat to prohibition. Who knew? It was the nickname of W.E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson (1862-1945). He was a staunch prohibitionist who used underhanded -- maybe underpawed -- and behind-the-scenes methods to further his truculent and, I say, brain-dead opposition to Demon Rum. For reasons of taste, I’ll withhold comment that a man named Johnson was the inspiration for a word featuring what is now an anatomical vulgarity.
There are browse features galore, timelines and, sure, you can randomly jump to any point in the entry field. It’s web surfing for savants. I can search the 2,304 Mark Twain quotes the OED used to illustrate the meaning of words. Give it a freebie test drive at
I’ve learned the word “puck” definition involving hockey is but the fourth most common historical definition listed behind “an evil, malicious or mischievous spirit or demon of popular belief” and “a cattle disease.”
Yes, the vulcanized rubber disc that is the focus of a popular winter game had four previous incarnations centuries before Don Rickles made it a catchphrase insult. 
And I can predict almost exactly what my friends in the bar will say next time I try and foist that fact on them during a break in the action.
Already I’ve learned fascinating and previously unknown things about many of my favorite swear words I’ve been using since the fourth grade.
You can search the exact year words first appeared in the OED. I like that the word “boink” first appeared in 1963, the same year as I was born. But you won’t hear me  bragging that my birth year also coincided with the evident need for the word “dipshit” to be saluted with OED recognition.
I feel like I’m wading into a vast lexicographical ocean. It’s exciting. I feel enriched every time I log in with my secret handshake of a password and only hope I can retain a fraction of all I’ll learn with each fascinating search.
So, no, paying $295 to subscribe wasn’t a mistake.
Telling my wife about it, now that’ll be a mistake.


Averil Dean said...

A mega dictionary? Yes please, Santa!

Chris Rodell said...

How about this? Anytime you need a word, you e-mail me. No problem!