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In Any Given Word: Part Two

Posted on Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 9:42 AM

More reference works.

By Peter P. Jacobi

We continue with word finders.

Word Combinations

You might consider another Roget's for your collection, Roget's Thesaurus of Phrases (MJF Books), put together by language maven Barbara Ann Kipfer. It holds more than 300 pages of word combinations that have come into usage for various reasons: as ways to verbalize changes in the way we live, as new means to express ourselves, as brighteners of language, and as acquired terminology needed to define societal developments be they in law and politics, science and technology, the arts and culture. Everything in this Roget's is alphabetically placed, starting with "abdominal muscle" and ending with "zoot suit."

You'll find "Cross the Rubicon," and "diplomatic immunity," "early bird" and "easy mark," "garage band" and "kill time," "naked ape" and "namby-pamby," "pax romana" and "radiocarbon dating," "saving grace" and "theory of everything."

Less Popular Word Options

The self-educated lexicographer Eugene Ehrlich, who died about three years ago at 85, left us The Highly Selective Thesaurus and Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate (self-published, then issued by Quality Paperback Book Club). Ehrlich explains in a preface: "My goal in preparing this work for those who already know more words than they need to know was to help them jog their memories when they are searching for a special word."

That means when you look up a well known or fairly well known word or term, the thesaurus/dictionary offers you lesser known options. "Cut across" can be replaced by "transect," "daddy-longlegs" by "harvestman," "gravedigger" by "fossarian," "nobleman" by a list of substitutes ("boyar, grandee, hidalgo, magnifico, marchese, marquess, marquis, ritter, viscount"), "present occasion" by "nonce," "pretentious" by an extensive list ("affected, bombastic, flatulent, florid, grandiloquent, inflated, la-di-da, magniloquent, orotund, ostentatious, overblown, papier-mache, recherché, tumescent, turgid"), "spelling" by "heterography" and "orthography," and "word-related" by "lexical."

All of the above appear in the first half of Ehrlich's book, the thesaurus. The second half, a dictionary, provides definitions. "Amphibology" refers to "ambiguous speech or wording, quibble." "Impecunious" means "having little or no money; penniless, needy." "Sang-froid" boils down to "calmness in the face of danger or difficulty; composure; self-possession." I'm not sure how much of all this you really need in the day-to-day crush of editing or writing, but the collection contains some fascinating possibilities. Ours is quite a language.

Word Origins

Ehrlich also left us The Highly Selective Dictionary of Golden Adjectives for the Extraordinarily Literate (Harper Collins), which supplies more of the same: definitions for "coltish," "frangible," "klutzy," "pellucid," "stridulous," and hundreds of other words covering 250 pages.

If you want to know where 12,000 of our words come from, turn to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, edited by Glynnis Chantrell. Since I used the word "fascinating" in the paragraph above, let that word serve to show what this reference work does. The entry says: "fascinate [late 16th century] 'Bewitch, put under a spell' was the first sense recorded for fascinate. It comes from Latin fascinare 'bewitch', from fascinum 'spell, witchcraft'. The figurative use meaning 'attract and hold spellbound' developed early in the word's history." Perhaps this dictionary, with its emphasis on the origin of words, is designed more for the satisfaction of curiosity than for everyday practicality, but you never know. Sometimes, where language comes from is important. As for me, I love the search.

Words Arranged by Topic

Word Menu (Random House), by the late lexicographer Stephen Glazier, arranges words by topic areas and sub-divisions. Under "Science and Technology," for instance, one finds a series of categories from "Physics" to "Computers." The "Physics" section gives us eight lists of and definitions for words you might wish to know about more precisely than you do ("Branches and Disciplines," "Principles of Mechanics, Waves, and Measurement," "Electricity and Magnetism," "Nuclear and Particle Physics," "Cosmology," "Heat," "Optics," and "Acoustics"). Word Menu supplies about 800 separate categories covering the span of human knowledge and endeavors.

Commonly Confused Words

The Wrong Word Dictionary (Castle Books), by Dave Dowling, attempts to de-confuse us about the "2,000 Most Commonly Confused Words": adjacent versus adjoining; capitulate and recapitulate; enormity and enormousness; hanged and hung; paltry and petty; spiritual and spirituous; whither and wither. I find this a go-to book, in some cases, for distinctions in meaning and, in others, for spelling.

Proper American English Usage

Mark Davidson, a California-based professor of communications, has come up with Right, Wrong, and Risky, A Dictionary of Today's American English Usage (Norton). This excellent source answers our questions about word choices, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Alphabetically, you can go to "capitalizing titles of people" or "double negatives that are a no-no" or "gibe or jibe" or "it and there can hurt or help the start of a sentence" or "leitmotif, leitmotiv, or motif" or "octopi or octopuses" or "quotations within quotations" or "wean from or wean on." Every entry is explicitly and sufficiently explained.

Dictionary of Slang

From Barbara Ann Kipfer again, along with Robert Chapman, there's the Dictionary of American Slang (Collins), a terrific collection of just that (chow hound, fuzz-face, knock it off, movers and shakers, muck around, queer fish, sit in the catbird seat, welcome to the club, and enough others to fill more than 550 good-sized pages).

Foreign Words and Phrases

Finally, I give you the Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases, which boasts 8,000 words and phrases from more than 40 languages. In our day of word compression, the ability to recognize what these verbal expressions mean becomes increasingly important. Do you really know what "caveat emptor" means or "doppelganger" or "ex cathedra" or "guru" or "meerschaum" or "polonaise" or "summa cum laude" or "vers libre"? Well, in case you don't, this is the place to find the answers.

Consider any and all of those I wrote about last month and of the above. They can be mighty helpful. After all, aren't clarity and precision what we consistently aim for? These reference works are the tools to achieve our goals.

Oh, but, regardless of the opportunities for word exchanges provided, when I say that we aim for what's clear and precise, I do not want to opt for the words "luculent" and "finical." Clear and precise will do.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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