When I was in seventh grade, one day I got stuck in a study hall with nothing to read but a paperback dictionary. I opened it, and scanned down the page looking for something interesting.
I found it. The word was "callipygian" (kal-uh-pij'-ee-an). It meant, "having beautifully proportioned buttocks."
Maybe things are different now, but when I was in seventh grade, a word like that could and did exert a powerful influence on the mind of an imaginative boy.
After giggling and snorting for a while, I read the rest of the definition, which in that particular Webster's also included word derivations -- what language or languages the word hailed or got combined from. (Incidentally, virtually all books now called "Webster's" have little or nothing to do with the long labors of Noah Webster -- Charles and George Merriam bought all rights to Webster's dictionaries in 1843, and after extensive revisions, made them the household word they are today. But anybody can slap the name "Webster's" on a dictionary. And many not-so-scrupulous publishers do just that.)
Well, the "roots" of "callipygian" got me flipping to another part of the dictionary to see what "pygidium" meant, then back to "calli-" to see what other words started with this prefix that meant "beautiful." (You can look up pygidium for yourself -- this is a family newspaper. As for "calli-" -- how about "calligraphy," literally, "beautiful writing"?)
By the end of the study hall, I was hooked. From that day to this, I have been addicted to reading dictionaries.
At the Douglas Public Library District alone, we have 397 books in which the word "dictionary" appears in the title. Interestingly, English probably has more dictionaries than any other language.
Why? In part, because we have more words. Not only do we invent a lot of them, if some other language comes up with a good one, we steal it.
Nobody really knows just how many words currently are in use in the English-speaking world. Over 200,000, however, are in COMMON parlance. In comparison, the Germans have only about 184,000 words, and the French, a paltry 100,000.
According to Charlton Laird, in his book "The Miracle of Language," English is also the only language that has -- or needs -- books of synonyms. "Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist."
But to get back to dictionaries, they generally fall into one of several camps. One camp is exemplified by the so-called "Webster's Second Edition," published in 1934. It was one of those thick, heavy books that properly requires its own solid oak stand. The Second Edition is still a signpost of erudition, correctness, and scholarly fastidiousness.
A second camp was perfectly captured by the Webster's Third Edition, usually called "The Webster's Unabridged," and roundly condemned by indignant newspaper editors, English professors and even librarians, as inexcusably permissive. (The Unabridged gave the nod not only to "imply" as a synonym for "infer" but even extended an explicit linguistic sanction to "ain't".)
Ah, but the crowning glory of English lexicography (from "lexis" -- speech, and "graphy" -- the writing of) is, and ever shall be, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Its original purpose was to trace and document the usage of every word used in English since 1150 A.D. In its 16 volumes and 5 supplements, the OED contains 414,825 entries, supported by 1,827,306 citations, described in 44 million words of text spread over 15,487 pages.
A second edition of the OED, the OED2, was released in 1989, ranging across 20 volumes, with 615,000 entries, 2,412,000 supporting quotations, almost 60 million words of exposition, and about 350 million keystrokes of text -- one for every native speaker of English in the world.
According to Bill Bryson's lively and readable "The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way" (the source for most of the information in this week's column), the OED is the reason that "more is known about the history of English than any other language in the world. No other language has anything even remotely approaching it in scope."
It's the kind of thing that makes you proud to talk English. Ain't it?