Tag Archives: dictionary

Fun With Dictionaries. No, Really.

When I was a kid, I had one of those small, plastic record players that came with small, plastic records of children’s songs. One yellow plastic disk had a song on it about dictionaries. I still remember it.

“Oh, the dic-dic-dictionary/is very necessary./Any word that you can cook up/you can look up./Pick the book up.” It also included a verse exhorting children to look up the words “dromedary” and “estuary.” Or maybe “actuary.” The sound reproduction was not that great. Neither word is one that I needed to know until much later in life, but I went through childhood with them stuck in my brain.  For that matter, they still are.

Also stuck in my brain is a dictionary adventure from slightly later in my childhood. Like many – perhaps most – of you, I ventured to the fount of all knowledge to look up “dirty” words. I didn’t find them all (I didn’t know them all at that point), but I found one that made a distinct impression on me. To this day, I can quote the definition of “fart” word for word: “an anal emission of intestinal gasses, especially when audible.” In other words, what was called a “poot” in our household, though that was not listed as a synonym.

There was one dictionary in history that caused quite an uproar, and it was largely (though not exclusively) caused by a different four-letter word: ain’t. Webster’s Third was not the first to include “ain’t” – even Webster’s Second did that. But Web3, notorious for downgrading (or I guess upgrading) usage labels, no longer listed the word as “illiterate” or “substandard,” but merely “colloquial,” or usable in regular conversation, though not in formal speech.

Headlines abounded: “Ain’t Ain’t Wrong, Says Webster’s.” Lexicographers were incensed and language mavens had the vapors. Not to mention the grammarians, who really got their undies in a bundle. The only people not freaking out were the linguists, who considered “ain’t” “nonstandard,” which was their nicer way of saying “substandard.”

(Lexicographers, linguists, and grammarians are different species, whose nether garments bunch at different sorts of things. Let me know if you want to know the difference. I’m lots of fun at parties. But I digress.)

Speaking of parties, there is a nifty party game that can be played with a dictionary, if you’re trapped at a party with no drinks, food, or music. It’s called Fictionary and bears no relation to Pictionary, which at least can get raucous.

For Fictionary, one person, acting as moderator, wields the Webster’s and selects a suitably obscure word. Each participant writes an imaginary definition on a slip of paper, while the moderator writes out the actual definition. The papers are then collected and read aloud. Participants vote on which is the correct definition. If a bogus definition wins out over the real one, that player gets a point. Hilarity ensues.

(The secret to winning a point is to start your fake definition with “of or pertaining to.”)

And speaking of word games, there’s Scrabble (aka Words with Friends if you’re among the techno-literate, which if you’re playing Fictionary you’re probably not).

A fascinating book (for those like me who are fascinated by such things) is Word Freak – not my autobiography, but instead a searing look into the dark underbelly of competitive Scrabble. For those who never thought competitive Scrabble was a thing or that it had a dark underbelly, it is and it does.

Now, of course, dictionaries have been replaced by the computer and particularly the internet. Among the most useful and colorful sites is the Urban Dictionary, where you can find the definition of words like “yeet,” though not its past tense “yote.” (I still don’t know what the past participle is. “Yoten” is what I recommend, though I’ve never written or spoken a sentence where it was needed.)

The Urban Dictionary proved useful to me once when a character on House, M.D. (okay, it was House) used the term “squish mitten.” I pretty much got the meaning from context but felt a need to verify it, just for accuracy’s sake.

Actually, the internet is a good place to get your lexicography. The language changes constantly and rapidly, so the only place you can really keep up with it is online. Although I think it’s fair to say that “fart” hasn’t changed much, is still spelled and pronounced the same way, and still has the definition that made such an impression on me as a kid.