Tag Archives: dictionary

These Are Words?

No, I’m not going to complain about neologisms such as “yeet,” which are actually useful, even if I do have to look them up in the Urban Dictionary. Instead, I have some things to say about recent words I’ve encountered that make little sense to me or that I have misread as something else entirely. I find these words perplexing, for a variety of reasons.

One I encountered recently is “sewist,” which is easy to mistake for “sexist” if you’re skimming (or typing, if you’re very bad at it). I think it is an attempt to replace the possibly-problematic-gender-wise “seamstress.” You can’t just retrofit it to “seamster,” I guess, in the way that “actress” has been. (I must admit that it is still difficult for me to refer to Angelina Jolie or Maggie Smith as an actor. I suppose I’ll get used to it, though it’s going to take me a while. But I digress.) There’s always “sewer,” I suppose, though that’s as unlikely to catch on as “sewist,” probably because, pronounced differently, it already has an entrenched (sorry not sorry) meaning.

I must point out that there is another, already existing, term that conveys the same content in an equally nonsexist manner: “fabric artist.” Admittedly, it does have the drawback of being two words and four syllables, which is difficult for speakers to handle in this fast-paced modern world. But the term also conveys the idea of someone skilled in making beautiful things (as well as useful ones) in a way that “sewist” just doesn’t.

The next candidate for Worst New Word is “sanism,” which I thought at first was shorthand (or a mistyping) of “satanism.” After reading further in the passage, I realized that “sanism” was one of the many “-ism” words that refer to offensive, discriminatory practices – like ageism, sexism, lookism (not kidding), racism, colorism (which is different from racism), ableism, and the like.

“Sanism” refers to the oppressive dominance of sanity, over what or whom, I’m still trying to determine. Surely not insanity, which is, these days, a legal term (not guilty by reason of) and not one that should be used to refer to people with mental health issues. Perhaps it refers to the presumption that everyone is sane until proven otherwise, which sounds to me like another class (sorry not sorry) of privilege.

Perusing Merriam-Webster’s words that were added to the dictionary in 2021, one comes across “copypasta” (which does not refer to stealing recipes); “teraflop” (which is not an unsuccessful dinosaur); “halotherapy” (which is not a religious term); “hard pass” (which is not a football term); and “gig worker” (which is not someone who spears frogs).

Of course, none of these may catch on the way “truthiness” did after it was introduced on The Stephen Colbert Show. It was just so darn useful, and resonated with those observing the political scene in 2020, when M-W noticed the word.

One other word that has been resurrected this year, though not with its previous meaning, is “oobleck.” This, of course, was coined by the illustrious Dr. Seuss (one of my first (and still) all-time favorite authors) in Bartholomew and the Oobleck, where it referred to a kind of goopy green snow. Now it means a substance made from cornstarch and water that behaves like a solid at times and like a liquid at others.

Personally, I approve. I think Dr. Seuss would have been proud. Or chuffed, if he were British.

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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.