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Collecting Words: A Dictionary Lover's Passion

Updated on December 17, 2015
A page from my word-collecting notebook.
A page from my word-collecting notebook. | Source

The Best Gift Ever

Perhaps one of the best gifts I was ever given is one that many folks take for granted. I'll give you a hint: It's a book. A huge, fat book, and one that almost nobody (and that includes myself) ever reads all the way through, and usually not from start to finish.

Besides, it's just so much more fun to open to a random page and see what jumps out.

That gift was...

...a Dictionary. (And a Thesaurus too!)

That's right, I'm a collector of words.

Archaic words, new words, made up words, poetic and musical-sounding words, compound words that mean something else when you stick them together, words used in new ways. Even simple words, the kind of words that get ignored unless you look at them and contemplate.

Not just the words, but the stories of where they came from.

So come join me in a brief exploration of some of my collection.

The Word Game

There are two origins of my collection. One is that my grandmother was an English teacher. Once I'd gotten the basics of phonics down, she handed me a dictionary. "Here, this is how to look a word up, if you don't understand its meaning."

From that moment I had Ultimate Power (cue fiendish laughter) in my hands. I could learn anything, understand any book.

The other origin is a game that my Mom and her best friend used to play.

They were both writers, and Mom's buddy, D worked as a proofreader and editor for a large NY publishing company. They'd take turns locating obscure and interesting words and sending them to each other.

As I became interested in writing, I was allowed to play too. It's funny how many hours I could spend sitting under the apple tree in my back yard, just paging through my dictionary looking for a strange new word to share.

I find it so sad that some dictionaries actually edit out words in their new editions, to save room. OUCH! How sad for those delicious old words.

Holding hands.
Holding hands.

Leman

My favorite word that I recall from this game is leman, which means a sweetheart, lover, mistress or a Common-Law wife. Today we call that a "Significant Other" which sounds so cold and unromantic in comparison. Oh and it's pronounced like lemon, though I believe lee-man also works.

The root here is lief or leof, which means "dear" or "beloved" but also "ready" and "glad" and "willingly." And hmmm... Yep, directly related to the word "love." Isn't this a huge part of what we want in a relationship?

Contrast this with the word "wife" which originally just meant "a woman." From this we get words like midwife, and fishwife, and goodwife, the last of which was a title in the 1500s or so, used the way we say Mrs. today. Wife later became applied to the female partner (or during the Medieval period, more likely the female chattel) in a marriage. Not terribly romantic, huh?

Let's look at husband too. It's a relatively modern word when used in the sense of marriage -- only the 13th century. The word previously used was wer meaning "man" (the same root that "werewolf" comes from). Husband comes from hus, "house" and bondi, "dweller." Bondi was also synonymous with "peasant." The word also had connotations of mastering something, and looking over it's care and breeding. So you could husband your land and your sheep as well as your wife. Yeah that's got Valentine's Day written all over it!

One more, lets try "spouse." This comes from the Latin spondere, "to make a pledge," and is related to the Greek spendein "to pour a libation." So basically what we have here is a contract. While it's lovely that the partners pledge to each other, it still doesn't have nearly the loving feel of leman.

Okay, that's it! I'm starting a movement to replace SigOther with leman. What's nice about this word is that originally it could be applied to a beloved of either gender.

An interesting thing I learned, several years back when I was learning Swedish is that their word for love, Alskar only applies to romantic relationships. You can strongly like your mom or your dad or your best friend, but you can only Alskar your beloved. A dour bunch, those Norse!

Eyeball
Eyeball

Eyeball

This is one of those words we don't really think about a lot. Oh we think about our eyes all the time. Especially if we have something stuck in one. Or we're watching a movie where someone plucks one out of a dead body to bypass an optical scanner.

(This is why I'll never use any product with a biometric lock.)

Gotta love Shakespeare. I recently learned that he was the inventor of this word. The concepts of "eye" and "ball" had been around probably since we climbed out of the trees and noticed that once out of the shade, the ball of the sun was a bit glaring to our eyes. But until Midsummer Night's Dream, when Oberon said, "To take from thence all error with his might, And make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight," no one in the history of the English tongue seems to have put those two together.

Shakespeare was a famed crafter of words. (He made up around 1700 of them!) If he couldn't find one that he liked, he'd break apart other words and mash them together in strange new ways. Just a few of the other words he came up with include "dauntless," "swagger" and "blanket," when it's used as a verb.

Sometimes even the Bard was less than poetic. For instance he came up with "co-mart" meaning, "joint bargains." To me it sounds like somewhere I'd go to pick up a 6-pack and chips at 3 a.m.

And if you friended someone on Facebook recently, good old Willy came up with that one too.

My Two Favorite Books on the History of the English Language

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

This book (like most of the best ones I've ever read) fell off of a shelf directly in front of me -- happens to me all the time -- and I was compelled to read it. One of the most prolific contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary was a convicted murderer confined to an insane asylum. Who could make this stuff up? How he got there is dark, deep and ugly. And inspiring at the same time.

In 1998 Mel Gibson bought the movie rights, but to this day it hasn't yet gone into production. Pooh!

 
The Story of English: Third Revised Edition
The Story of English: Third Revised Edition

I found this one utterly fascinating. Easy to read, funny and thought provoking,

 

The OED took 70 years to write. Here's how it was accomplished.

More Depth on the History of English and the Professor and the Madman

The first part in an award winning documentary based on the Story of English book.

Midsummer

While I'm being reminded of one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, lets talk about midsummer itself.

I'd always wondered why the first day of summer was called Midsummer Night. I mean, it's either the beginning or it's the middle, not both, right?

Here's the story as I've had it told to me:

Back when the Founding Fathers were starting their little experiment a big discussion arose about the calendar.

You see back in Britain, and particularly with the ancient Celts, summer started with the festival of Beltaine -- what in modern times we call May Day (The calendar has moved out of step with astrology a bit in the past few thousand years, but it's still relatively close to that day.) And for the Celts summer ended with Lammas, the Harvest of Bread, in early August. So in that calendar, midsummer was the middle of summer.

Some of the Founding Fathers were pretty ticked off at the King across the Pond and wanted no part of anything slightly British. Instead they wanted to go with the Greco-Roman calendar, where summer starts at the solstice.

As a compromise they said, "Let nature decide." Which is why on Groundhog Day it's decided whether spring starts right then (the beginning of spring on the Celtic calendar) or in 6 weeks (the Greco-Roman spring on the Equinox).

My yak Yonkers and her baby, Yeti-Star
My yak Yonkers and her baby, Yeti-Star

Disgruntle

How can you be disgruntled, if it's not possible to be gruntled in the first place?

Well, there was a time when you could. (Actually, I'm sure you still can, but the word itself has gone out of usage.) Gruntled is, (I bet you guessed!) related to the word "grunt." Now you'd think that if being disgruntled isn't much fun, then being gruntled would be great.

After all, dis- usually means "apart" or "away." If we disappear we go away and if we disembark we get off of something.

But no, "gruntled" means "grumbly" or "complaining."`Add the dis- to it and it means that someone's very extra grumbly. According to what I've found, the dis- in this case means "very" or "extra." How that came to be, I've no clue.

The root of the word is the Latin grunnire, "to grunt" and is the same root where we get Bos grunniens, literally "grunting ox," the Latin name for the yak. My own yaks did a lot of grunting, but they seemed to do it no matter what their mood was.

Copper bell
Copper bell

Tintinnabulation

This is one of those words that I admire because it sounds like exactly what it is, the ringing of the bells. The most basic form of the word is tinnire, Latin for "to ring" and a tintinnabulum is a small bell.

It's believed that Poe may have coined this particular form of the word in 1831. Folks don't seem to be positive on that, as various forms of the word were already in use well before.

The only problem with this otherwise nifty word is that it's hard to find an excuse to use it in a sentence. And if you do you'll come off as...well, sounding like you're just borrowing from Poe.

The word for words that sound like what they are is "onomatopoeia." Which strangely enough, doesn't sound anything like what it means.

Brabble

Another great onomatopoetic word, this means "to quarrel, brawl and squabble noisily over trifles."

I'm going to have to remember to use this one more.

"Honey, stop brabbling. It doesn't matter which of us cleaned the lint out of the dryer last, just so long as it got done."

Dictionaries, YAY!

Although the online versions are good, I like to keep hard copies that I can page though at will.

Much as I'd love to have the Oxford English Dictionary, the Websters is the dictionary I most often use. I can easily while away an hour or two digging through it and looking for new words.

One thing that saddens me is that because of the need to keep printing costs down, many publishers remove old, "out of style" words to make room for the new terms that are coming into use.

Because of that, I'm always on the lookout for old dictionaries when I go to yard sales and used book stores.

And a Good Thesaurus

As a writer, a Thesaurus is one of my must-have tools.

The English Language is one of subtle shades of meaning and there's a gigantic difference between the perfect word and the almost-right one.

I like to keep the Merriam Webster, which is in alphabetical order, and the Roget, which is organized by subject. Between the two of them (and my memory) I can usually find exactly the word I need.


Karma's snout
Karma's snout

Snorker

I just learned this one today. It's an archaic English word that comes from the German schnorchel, "nose" or "snout."

A snorker is, "someone who sniffs at objects the way a dog does." In other words, a nosy person. What a great visual!

My dogs are all giving me confused looks right now. "What's so bad about that, Mommy?"

According to the Urban Dictionary, the verb "to snork" means to shoot something you're drinking through your sinuses and out your nose because you're laughing so hard.

In Australia a snorker also seems to be a particular kind of sausage, probably named because it resembles a snorkel. (The dogs are much happier with this definition. But now they're looking for treats.)

Fiddlesticks

While its literal meaning is the bow from a violin, around the 1600s this came to mean "nonsense." I'm not sure why, unless it was coined by someone who hated music and dancing.

This one has a story attached. I was selling at a local flea market. In the next booth was a young mother with small children. The youngest, an adorable four-year old kept wandering past my booth, muttering something.

Every time she passed I listened, and I finally realized that she was chanting, "Fiddlesticks, fiddlesticks!"

Of course I had to ask.

"Someone at her daycare taught her a bad word," said the mom. "You know, one that starts with the same letter? So I taught her to use this one instead. It's fun for her to say, too."

Anytime I hear that word, I can't help but laugh at the memory of that cute little girl stomping past my booth and muttering her own favorite profanity.

Buy a bunch of  lemons, and they might throw in a pepper too.
Buy a bunch of lemons, and they might throw in a pepper too.

Lagniappe

This word's first known usage was from 1849 New Orleans creole. It's believed to come from the Spanish la napa, "the gift" and possibly from the Quechua yapa "something added." It's pronounced "lan-yap," though according to Mark Twain the folks in New Orleans say "lanny-yap."

It refers to a small gift that a shopkeeper gives a customer when they buy something, much like the tradition of the "baker's dozen" being thirteen. So if you were to do your grocery shopping, while you were paying and bagging up your purchases, the shop owner might throw in a head of garlic or a few peppers, or a ripe apple. Something inexpensive that makes the customer feel good and want to come back.

I love the concept behind this word. So many times, people will do only as much as they have to and not an inch more. If everyone would go just a little extra, the world might be a happier place. To me, lagniappe relates to the idea of Random Acts of Kindness. Simple things like smiling at someone on the street or holding a door for someone, or helping someone who's struggling with their bags.

My husband (my leman) has his own version of asking for lagniappe. Any time he's on the phone with some sort of customer service or tech support, when they prepare to finish the call and ask, "Is there anything else I can do for you?" he'll say, "Can you do anything about World Peace?"

Most often the question confuses folks. Hopefully they go home and think about it. But every once in a while he gets amazing and positive answers.

My Own Created Word

As a writer and wordsmith, every once in a while I get to coin my own term. Hey, if Shakespeare was allowed to do it, so can I!

A few weeks ago, my hubby and I were talking about something we wanted to cook. (We're both major foodies.) "That sounds like it's chock full of numoids," I said. Then we stared at each other in surprise.

Numoids (tm) is a combination of "nummy" (our slang for "yummy") and "steroids." Our dogs have learned the word, and if we ask, "Zen, you want a nummie treat?" (or variously "num-nums") he'll immediately sit and wait nicely for a goodie.

Don't be surprised if I start saying in my articles that a recipe has "numoid flavor."

The Care and Feeding of Words

First you have to catch a word. You can do this by browsing the dictionary or thesaurus or by finding one in a book you're reading. Just go into the word's natural habitat and it's hard not to find one. Capture it by writing it down and looking up its definition. Write that down too, if you wish.

I keep a notepad and pen near me at all times, so that if a wild word happens to peek through the bushes while I'm prowling their territory, I can snatch it up and snap it into my book.

Be aware though, that words don't thrive in captivity. Eventually you're going to have to release them. Use them in a sentence, write them into a story. Spread them around so that others can see them in all their glorious beauty and mystery.

Made Up Words

Do you like playing with words? Have you ever created a word yourself? Or does your family have a word or phrase peculiar to them?

I'd love to hear about your favorite or made up word in my comments section.


This page received the Purple Star award when it was first published on Squidoo. Thank you kindly to those who recommended it.

© 2014 Lionrhod

What's Your Favorite Word?

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 22 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      I have no idea. She used to say "oh fudge". Maybe she meant darn or another variation of shoot, when she moved her right arm near her leg.

    • Lionrhod profile image
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      Lionrhod 22 months ago from Orlando, FL

      :) Fudge! Another awesome one. I wonder if that's just another euphemism for "poop" or if there's a further derivation.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 24 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      This was a great hub. It was also interesting and inquisitive too. I used to have a friend who say fiddlesticks, back in the day. And fudge, right after it. Voted up!

    • Lionrhod profile image
      Author

      Lionrhod 2 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Scrabble is one of my favorite games. But nobody will play with me. I should learn to throw a game here and there.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 2 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      As a lover of the game of Scrabble, I really appreciate this article. My dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri?) are among my favorite and most-used books.

    • Lionrhod profile image
      Author

      Lionrhod 2 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Thank you so much, Paula. I truly adore words and I hope I'll be adding more to this page as I go along.

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 2 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      As an English major, I really resemble this page. :) I enjoyed reading your take on these words. The OED was a prime source of reading when I was in college. What an incredible piece of work!

    • Lionrhod profile image
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      Lionrhod 2 years ago from Orlando, FL

      @sierradawn lm: Hehehe! Yes, just watched that movie again recently.

    • profile image

      happynutritionist 3 years ago

      I tried leave a comment above but it would not let me. Loved the page, and have no favorite words, but have made up a few silly ones along the way.

    • Lionrhod profile image
      Author

      Lionrhod 2 years ago from Orlando, FL

      @sierradawn lm: Yes I've heard that too. Oooh! I am going to HAVE to find out what those words are. That's awesome! Thanks!

    • Lionrhod profile image
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      Lionrhod 2 years ago from Orlando, FL

      @sierradawn lm: Oh wow! That's so nifty! Glad I could help you with that one.

    • sierradawn lm profile image

      sierradawn lm 2 years ago

      I did not know the meaning of the word Leman and was so delighted to learn what it means, as it is my Great Grandmother's maiden name.

    • sierradawn lm profile image

      sierradawn lm 2 years ago

      I recently read a magazine article about some new words that were added to official dictionary status. It said that new word usage is monitored and when the usage reaches a certain level, it becomes officially included in the dictionary. I have lost the article and do not remember what all of the official new words were, but it was fascinating. One new word was for the ring left on a surface from a drink being set there. Another was the word for a bedroom strewn with garments all over the floor. I do not remember what the new words were but they are now included in new printings of dictionaries. I loved your article. I love words too!

    • sierradawn lm profile image

      sierradawn lm 2 years ago

      "Supercalafragulisticexpiealidosius". Unsure of the correct spelling as I can not find it in the dictionary. From Disney's "Mary Poppins".

    • Lionrhod profile image
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      Lionrhod 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      @LauraHofman: Great words!

    • Guy E Wood profile image

      Guy E Wood 3 years ago from USA

      One of my favorite topics! Thank you.

      I tried to vote in your "Made Up Words" section, but I couldn't get it to post, even after typing the hidden word.

      Here's what I said:

      Much to the chagrin of my wife and kids, I've made up a lot of words over the years.

      I lean toward creating words that sound like others when I mess around and toward signs (I have a lot of Deaf friends) that are ridiculously graphic (I call these GSL -- Guy Sign Language -- instead of ASL).

      Sadly, some of my invented words remained in my kids' vocabulary -- i.e., uncorrected by me -- until they found out in college that the words I misused or invented were wrong.

      I regret the embarrassment I caused them, but we also get a lot of laughs out of their experiences trying to explain their odd vocabulary to their professors. As an added benefit, my kids are now passing the words to their offspring. :-)

      Onward!

      Guy

    • LauraHofman profile image

      Laura Hofman 3 years ago from Naperville, IL

      I love words! Two I've been using a lot of recently are "copacetic" and "desultory". Excellent lens on a favorite and important topic.

    • Lionrhod profile image
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      Lionrhod 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      @esmonaco: Neat. Never heard that one. I'll have to do some research into it, cause I'm dying to know where it comes from.

    • Lionrhod profile image
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      Lionrhod 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      @Guy E Wood: Great story! Thanks much for sharing it! I have the same problem with duel modules too sometimes. I think it might have to do with browser cache, as I've had better luck earlier in the day when I first boot up my computer.

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Love your lens! It sounds like a great hobby that you can research or just enjoy! Words are amazing.

    • profile image

      Ibidii 3 years ago

      Great lens! I love the etymology of words! Would love that English language book history! My husband had what I called words from the "Debsters Dictionary." He had trouble pronouncing words. I came to find out he was dyslexic. so what he saw when he read and the way he pronounced it was very funny! I will have to think about the words he mashed up and get back to you on it. But it was truly funny! Our daughter has the same issue.

    • esmonaco profile image

      Eugene Samuel Monaco 3 years ago from Lakewood New York

      We grew up in Western Pennsylvania, a word we always used was red-up, I don't know if the spelling is correct, but the meaning was clean up. We would always tell our kids "go red-up your room" Thanks for sharing :)

    • Lionrhod profile image
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      Lionrhod 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      @Arachnea: Yes, us too. "What's that word mean?" Would have Mom or Grandma pointing at the dictionary.

    • Arachnea profile image

      Tanya Jones 3 years ago from Texas USA

      Excellent lens. I'm a bit of a wordie myself. I like to listen for different turns of phrase and unique word uses. Glad to know there are a few more out there who appreciate words. BTW, my mother used to insist we look up words we didn't understand in the dictionary. This was from a very early age, about the first airing of the original Star Trek in fact.

    • Lionrhod profile image
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      Lionrhod 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      @SusanDeppner: Ohhh! Homemadeup is brilliant!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 3 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I've always been very fond of "tintinnabulation," so I'm very glad you included it here on your list. I'm sure I've made up quite a few words, but the only one that comes to mind right now is "homemadeup," which is how I refer to food I've prepared from scratch (or nearly so) without a recipe. Made at home and I made it up, thus "homemadeup." TM :)

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