Anu, Noah, and Beverly

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December 2, 2016 by libroshombre


The term “culprit” has been on my mind since I lost most of a recent powerpoint presentation due to not backing it up. “Culprit” has two meanings, according to a person responsible for a misdeed, and the cause of a problem. I hate being my own culprit, but it happens to the best of us. Even vocabulary guru Anu Garg, founder of, the host of A.Word.A.Day, sometimes messes up. Last week he admitted encountering the word “hippocracy,” which means “a rule by horses,” but only later realizing the sender misspelled “hypocrisy.”

That’s why the gods gave us dictionaries. In his “Documents That Changed the World” podcast last May, University of Washington library school professor Joe Janes focused on “Noah Webster, and the 70,000-word ‘American Dictionary of the English Language’ he published in 1828. It was one of the last dictionaries to be compiled by a single person.” Janes described Webster as “at times a failed farmer, an uninspired teacher, a state representative, a co-founder of Amherst College, a copyright advocate, and a friend of George Washington … He was also a Federalist and dedicated revolutionary who deeply loved his country.”

This affection was best expressed by creating his American dictionary. “Language,” Webster wrote in the introduction, “is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.” He strove to simplify spelling and incorporate Americanisms. That’s why we spell “theater” instead of “theatre” and “humor” rather than “humour,” among many others.

Dave Barry noted, “If you have a big enough dictionary, just about everything is a word.” The biggest is actually a bunch of dictionaries found at OneLook’s a “metasearch engine” that combs through a thousand-plus dictionaries in an eyeblink. OneLook is easy to use, fast, and isn’t cluttered up despite having a number of ways to tweak your searches. I use it regularly, but unfortunately it doesn’t include as much content as the unabridged American Heritage Dictionary, much less the mother of them all, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

When looking up words while working at the library’s reference desk, I could get up, fetch the print dictionary off the shelf, and look it up faster than retrieving it from an online database. And that came with the bonus of serendipitously discovering fascinating new words nearby on the page. For example, my father used to sing a spirited yet obscure song with the exhortation, “Buckle down, Winsocki, buckle down.” Curious, I traced it to a 1943 Lucille Ball musical titled “Best Foot Forward,” which provided no clues about “buckle down’s”origins, so I turned to the OED.

“Buckle,” “a rim of metal, with a hinged tongue carrying one or more spikes, for securing a belt, strap, or ribbon, which passes through the rim and is pierced by the spike,” comes from the Latin “buccula,” which is a diminutive for “bucca,” or “cheek.” That came from the term for the straps connecting metal cheek flaps of Roman helmets. Interesting in and of itself, but I searched further, in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). There I learned that in America beginning in the mid-1800s, buckling down, in, under, and up, meant “to work hard, to apply oneself ardently; the toe the line.”

Lurking nearby were “buck mouse” (white-footed mouse), “buck nun” (“a celibate man who lives alone”), “bucknut” (fruit of the jojoba), and “bucko” (“a ship’s officer who effects his will through physical violence”). And the OED added “buckish” (“resembling or characteristic of a he-goat; lascivious; ill-smelling”).

            Noted children’s author Beverly Cleary observed, “My favorite books are a constantly changing list, but one favorite has remained constant: the dictionary. Is the word I want to use spelled practice or practise? The dictionary knows. The dictionary also slows down my writing because it is such interesting reading that I am distracted.”

Among the greatest library people I’ve known was Itta Lenowitz, Chairman of the Seguin-Guadalupe County Library where I cut my library director teeth. Itta owned a department store, drove a Jaguar, and was a national-class Scrabble player. Among the many things she taught me was keeping dictionaries in every room, just in case.




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