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Little lists for word lovers

In his Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler used the term Wardour Street for ‘a selection of oddments calculated to establish (in the eyes of some readers) their claim to be persons of taste and writers of beautiful English’.

3 September 2011

12:00 AM

3 September 2011

12:00 AM

In his Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler used the term Wardour Street for ‘a selection of oddments calculated to establish (in the eyes of some readers) their claim to be persons of taste and writers of beautiful English’.

In his Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler used the term Wardour Street for ‘a selection of oddments calculated to establish (in the eyes of some readers) their claim to be persons of taste and writers of beautiful English’. The metaphor was taken from the street in Soho, later occupied by the film industry, once the place for dealers in antique, or imitation-antique furniture. Among Fowler’s examples of Wardour Street English were anent, aplenty, forebears, perchance and well-nigh.

‘As always,’ boasts the preface to the new edition of The Chambers Dictionary, ‘we have resisted the temptation to discard rare, literary and historical words; in fact we have gone out of our way to celebrate these and other intriguing or charming words by highlighting them on the page.’ Well, one woman’s charming is another woman’s twee, not to say kitsch. Which of these highlighted words would you care to pick up from the dealers’ stalls? Urchin-shows, grum, rantipole, had-I-wist, Newgate fringe, fogle, thunder-plump. If you took them all aboard, you’d be in danger of sounding like a novel by Jeffrey Farnol.

Chambers (the apostrophe having being discarded in 1972, the year after decimal currency came in) has developed a queasy notion that it appeals to ‘Word Lovers’. ‘At Chambers, words are our passion,’ it declares, unafraid of cliché:


Our awareness that our love of language is matched by that of our users also motivated an exquisite new  supplement, The Word Lover’s Miscellany, which truly celebrates words and the word lover’s dictionary. I can hardly believe those sentences were written by a lexicographer.

When we come to it, The Word Lover’s Miscellany is not as exquisitely ghastly as it is billed. In 35 pages of welcomely large type, it presents, in a Schottish way, little lists: of insults (young fogey), archaic words (fardel), words for intriguing things (emerods, which are claimed to be ‘representations of haemorrhoids in gold’, though the word is merely the Authorised Version of the Bible’s spelling of haemorrhoids; ‘The men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven’, 1 Samuel 5:12). Among what it calls ‘86 extinct words’ it lists liripipe, ‘the long tail of a graduate’s hood’. It is an interesting word, which I wrote about here (16 October 2010) when discussing a more useful insult, loll-poop. But, for as long as there is a need to mention the long tail of a graduate’s hood, I can think of no better, just as Latrocinium, another of the ‘86 extinct words’ remains the neatest way to refer to the spurious council of AD 449. It is historical, not extinct, just like Vatican II.

‘Some of us are sticklers for correct usage,’ continues The Word Lover’s Miscellany, adopting the tone of Little Arthur’s History of England, ‘and get annoyed by words being used in ways we would deem to be imprecise or loose.’ Like? ‘Join means “to bring together”, so it is unnecessary to say “join together”.’ If only Archbishop Cranmer had had the benefit of The Word Lover’s Miscellany before writing that part of the Book of Common Prayer designed ‘to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony’.

There’s not much wrong that I can see with the dictionary itself. (I have not read every word.) From a single-volume dictionary most people want spelling and meanings, and these seem to be in order. Initials and proper names are included, but not place-names or personal names: so London pride but not London. (The single-volume Oxford Dictionary of English gives London, with population, and Longfellow, with dates.)  There is no tiresome lecturing on usage and acceptability. Nigger is marked ‘offensive’, like fuck. Fuckwit is included but not the historical windfucker (which even the prissy first edition of the OED got in). It would have made a nice highlighted item for Word Lovers, would it not?

With computers, it is very much easier than it was to compile dictionaries. Even so, the price of £40 (£26.60 on Amazon; £50 RRP with thumb index) is not irrelevant to many users. The Concise Oxford, smaller, it is true, costs £25, and the Oxford Dictionary of English, comparable to Chambers, £40 (£23.20 on Amazon). If you write using a computer, then the online edition or app is handy. My husband, when he ‘tackles’ the crossword, prefers a vol sitting by his whisky glass.

One gimmick of Chambers is to print an alphabet in a different fount at the beginning of each section of words beginning with a new letter. A is for Arial and B (you guessed it) for Baskerville. It doesn’t mention what the body of the dictionary is set in, but it is a small, light, sans-serif face. It would be more readable in a less light, seriffed type.
A memory from my girlhood is of the Roman numerals and non-Roman alphabets at the back, and they are retained. The planets are given too, with their perihelia and aphelia given in AU, the meanings of which appear within. Pluto has fashionably been banished from their number — no longer one for the Word Lovers. 


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