National Dictionary Day

dictionaryI say this in love: Noah Webster was a total geek.  He knew 26 languages.  Not letters.  Languages.  Don’t you find it odd that he knew exactly the same number of languages as letters in the English alphabet? I wonder if it was a personal goal of his to know that many languages.  When did he find time to speak in them all?

I am convicted of the crime of not using nearly enough of my brain. So are we all.

In honor of Noah Webster and his overachieving ways, why not learn a new word today?  My favorite word, learned in the course of a writing game played with my class, is mordant.  It fits me like a sausage casing.  I’d tell you the definition, but then you wouldn’t go use a dictionary on National Dictionary Day.  Unless you already know the definition.  In that case, may I have your autograph? And can we be friends?

There should be a National Thesaurus Day.  Thesaurusing is a verb I’ve created to describe the process of trashing generic and overused descriptors, verbs, and even nouns, and replacing them with better, more vivid, more academically-mature words.  I’ve gotten some doozies in the process of this exercise.  When students don’t understand the flavor of certain words (or parts of speech), I get things like: I did a ravishing job on the dishes.  Or: Her pulchritudinous lips were too much for me to bear; I had to osculate them.

I tell them I’d rather see a grammar misstep than nostep.  It would be more a shame for them never to have broadened their brood vocabularies.  There.  See?  I thesaurused “young” to describe their vocabularies. The noun young came up, and its synonym, brood, also a noun.  See how easy it is to make a complete fool of yourself with a thesaurus?  One who would write must be willing to write badly.  I am willing. I’ve proven it.  Now go and have a look in Webster’s Compendious English Dictionary (published in 1806).  Today people run from words like compendious.  Perhaps they’re afraid to show their broodness.  Perhaps that’s the beginning of what’s wrong with America.  To be a student I must be teachable; to be teachable I must be willing to not know something.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “National Dictionary Day

  1. I actually went and looked up mordant! Lovely word – I may have to use it this week. Great article, I couldn’t agree with you more that in order to be teachable you need to admit you don’t know something.

  2. Of course I have to write back with my latest tip, which I read in an old New Yorker essay by John McPhee (April 29, 2013–I never throw them out it seems). He suggests writing the piece and then on about the 4th draft, putting a box around “any word that doesn’t seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” Then look them up in the dictionary, not the thesaurus. Of course he says, you can use them both, but the dictionary will help you find exactly the right word, the word you really wanted in the first place.
    I kinda like the idea, in part because it stops me from editing/cutting losing the flow in the first drafts.

    Do I get points for already knowing mordant? Fits my sense of humor some days.
    Cheers,
    Laura

    • Thanks much for the tip! I always love to hear from my first writing mentor and friend! And I’m not the least surprised YOU know the definition. This is like the old days around my dining room table while my babies (now 20 & 18 respectively) were down for a nap. What a lovely memory!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s