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Linguistic bliss at DSNA XV

What does it all mean? A hundred or so logophiles, lexicographers, philologists, and word nerds descended on Boston University last Thursday for DSNA XV, the biennial meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America. The warm, stuffy auditorium in the George Sherman Union was a sea of seersucker and bow ties, tortoiseshell frames and British accents, as language enthusiasts from here and abroad gathered to take in presentations with titles like "Vector-Based Models of Meaning and Their Application in Lexicography," "Samuel Johnson’s Use of ‘Corruption’ as a Linguistic Heuristic," "Zero Derivation and the Order of Senses," and "The Origin of the Term ‘Hot Dog.’" It was a learning experience.

Founded in 1975, the DSNA serves as a fellowship for "people working on dictionaries, academics who engage in research and writing about dictionaries, dictionary collectors, librarians, booksellers, translators, linguists, publishers, writers, collectors, journalists, and people with an avocational interest in dictionaries." People who breathe deeply the must of leather-bound volumes, for whom James A.H. Murray, the autodidact 19th-century editor of the Oxford English Dictionary is a deity. People, in other words, who love words.

Edinburghian Ian Brookes got things under way at 8 a.m. sharp. His "Painting the Forth Bridge: Coping with Obsolescence in a Monolingual English Dictionary" (the "Forth Bridge" Scottish saying refers to a job that must be started again as soon as it’s finished) dealt with the Sisyphean struggle to update definitions for words whose meanings have changed due to cultural changes, geopolitical shifts, and scientific advances. He quoted a hilarious dictionary entry from 1901, for instance, that defined a sea serpent as "an enormous marine animal of serpent-like form, frequently seen by credulous sailors, imaginative landsmen, and common liars." An atom, meanwhile, was "a particle of matter so small it cannot be cut or divided." Ernest Rutherford had something to say about that; ergo, the definition had to be changed.

The talk given by Don McCreary, an English professor at the University of Georgia, was particularly illuminating. In "Lumpers vs. Splitters: An Old Issue Revisited," he charted the evolution of slang words’ shades of meaning. Speaking like a computerized voice box about superordinate categories, analectical definition, and specific differentia, he then gestured toward the overhead projector and said, "May I have the ‘bitch’ slide please?"

"If someone calls a girl a bitch," he intoned, "it means she does not like her.... If a guy calls a girl his bitch it means she is his girlfriend.... A person can address a friend as ‘bitch’.... If a girl calls her boyfriend her bitch, then he does what she tells him to do." He also plumbed the etymology of street terms like "dog" and "blowin’ up," as well as hideous neologisms like "chillax." I was not aware that "if a man calls another man a ‘cock’ that means the man is his friend," and I was reassured that McCreary knew that "stank you" was "popularized by a rapper, OutKast’s Andre 3000."

Brit David Micklethwaite commented on "The Beauty of Books and the Fascination of Fascicles." (Fascicles, of course, being the separate sections of multi-volume books.) He spoke in the rarified tones of an Oxford don, but looked like the disheveled punter sitting with a half-empty pint in the back corner of the pub. A man who takes his collection of dictionaries very, very seriously, he doesn’t read them merely to look up words. He fingers those yellowed vellum pages slowly and deliberately, allowing himself to "get to know the mind of the author, like him or hate him.

"There was a time," Micklethwaite remembered, "when you needed a small van to move your OED." Now, you can put all those volumes on a single CD-ROM. This disgusts him. His dictionaries, he said, are "like old friends. I like the way they look and the way they feel. Like some old friends, I like the way some of them smell." He recounted his eBay purchases of very rare editions, demurring unconvincingly that he "can’t remember" what he paid. He pleaded with attendees to help him find volumes he’s missing. He spoke at length about his treasures: an English dictionary from the mid 1500s, "before the Spanish Armada, before even the first English settlement in America," and a dictionary whose "previous owner was the unfortunate Dr. William Dodd, who was executed for forgery. I kept his copy of Ainsworth’s Dictionary of the Latin Tongue, the edition of 1746."

By the end of the day’s first session (DSNA XV was a three-day affair), it wasn’t hard to understand the appeal of these books — books that, for most, are merely utilitarian. After all, words are fascinating, language a living thing. And if you don’t think so, you are — as the great abecedarian Peter Bowler once said — an "apogenous, bovaristic, coprolalial, dasypygal, excerebrose, facinorous, gnathonic, hircine, ithyphallic, jumentous, kyphotic, labrose, mephitic, napiform, oligophrenial, papuliferous, quisquilian, rebarbative, saponaceous, thersitical, unguinous, ventripotent, wlatsome, xylocephalous, yirning zoophyte."

Look it up.

Issue Date: June 17 - 23, 2005
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