There have never been so many words, and we’ve never been so obsessed with them.

An entire literary genre comprises nothing more than compilations of words, in order—which generally means alphabetical order—with or without commentary and exegesis. These are wordbooks, including but not limited to dictionaries. English now has tens of thousands of wordbooks, with hundreds more arriving each year. They may or may not concern themselves with what words mean or how to spell them. Over the next few months, the shelves will need to find room for dictionaries of plants and flavors, politics and numismatics, zoology and psychopathology; wordbooks for consultation, exam study, and game playing; collections of euphemisms, profanity, slang, and cant; a dictionary of terrorism and a dictionary of drinking water; joining a big crowd of “Words You Should Know,” “Words Smart People Should Know,” and “Words You Should Know to Sound Smart.”

How did wordbooks get so popular? W.H. Auden once said his desert-island book would be a dictionary, “for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways”—but we might put this under irony. Wordbooks are hardly meant for reading. A perennial best-seller in this category takes as its entire purpose the drawing of a line between words and nonwords: The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. Others—such as the less popular but more authoritative Oxford English Dictionary—have come to accept the reality that no such line can ever be drawn. Growth in the language is breaking all bounds. The OED, having noticed, can no longer confine itself to the printed page.

The birth of the genre in English can be dated exactly. It came in the age of Shakespeare, in 1604, when Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster and defrocked priest, published a short book with a long title that began A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes…. Cawdrey’s dictionary (a word he apparently didn’t know) runs to 2,500 words. His definitions are terse, and they don’t drip with confidence or erudition. Some words he drops into blind categories:

abricot, kind of fruit.

alablaster, kind of stone.

citron, kind of fruit.

crocodile, kind of beast.

Others he struggles to explain:

gargarise, to wash the mouth, and throate within, by stirring some liquor up and downe in the mouth.

horizon, a circle, deviding the halfe of the firmament, from the other halfe which we see not.

ironie, a mocking speech.

If he doesn’t know something, he has nowhere to look it up. He does have the honor of inventing the perfectly useless circular definition:

gentile, a heathen.

heathen, see Gentile.

For spelling he cares not at all—because there is no such thing as a right or wrong way to spell a word. He does announce, “Heerby also the true Orthography,” but consistent orthography doesn’t exist. In his very title, Cawdrey indiscriminately writes “words” and “wordes.” No one knows how many copies of this little book left the printer. Only one survived; it is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Last year it was republished for the first time (apparently there is a market for dictionaries), with a thoughtful and witty introduction by John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

If Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall sits at one pole of our wordbook history, the OED owns the other, but the OED isn’t standing still. The monument is on the move. Gargarise (“a gargle”) is Obs., says the OED, but an onslaught of new words strains the lexicographers’ ability to keep up. As a book, the OED last appeared as the Second Edition, a twenty-volume set published from 1972 to 1986; since then the franchise has naturally gone online, where it knows no limits. In the horde of new words this year we find waxhead, slang, chiefly Austral.—see surfie ; snickerdoodle, a century-old cookie achieving belated recognition; gengineer, sci-fi lingo for when you don’t have time to say “genetic engineer”; wantaway, just what it sounds like—“a person who wishes to leave”; and splitsville, defined with the OED ‘s dainty exactitude as “a notional place in which couples are separated or divorced.” I like that “notional place.”

Some others: radioland (as in “Hello out there in—“), fat city (not yet recognized by the OED), and hall of shame (as in, quoting Publishers Weekly, 2004, the “Blueberry Muffin Hall of Shame”). Cawdrey knew the word notion, “inwarde knowledge, or understanding.” Our world is so much bigger, the landscape so much more crowded. “In such busie, and active times,” wrote Thomas Sprat, thrilling to the buzz of the mid-1600s, “there arise more new thoughts of men, which must be signifi’d, and varied by new expressions.” At the time perhaps six million people in the world spoke English, most of them illiterate, isolated, dying within a few miles of where they were born.


Now there are more than a billion English-speakers, many engaged in a ceaseless global conversation. No one can count the dialects, sociolects, and idiolects. The first lexicographers had the first printed books to draw from, along with the evidence of their ears; now wordhunters swim in a teeming ocean of information: newspapers and magazines, movie scripts and television talk, the babel of online chatrooms and newsgroups. Neologisms arise spontaneously and crawl onto the land. The OED as a matter of policy waits for five years of evidence before recognizing a new word but then raises no barriers of taste, propriety, or correctness. Now puh-leeze is an OED word. It does, after all, mean something distinctly different from please.

In his latest message to readers, delivered, of course, electronically, John Simpson said with pride: “The OED should have an up-to-date entry for word. And now it does.” The entry dates back to Old English, runs the length of a novel, with ninety-seven distinct senses and subsenses, and includes

Computing. A consecutive string of bits (now typically 16, 32, or 64, but formerly fewer) that can be transferred and stored as a unit.

as well as

int. slang (orig. US, in the language of rap and hip-hop). Also word up. Expressing affirmation, agreement, or admiration: “That’s the truth!” “There’s no denying it!” “For sure!”

I’ve already stated the obvious, that dictionaries aren’t meant to be read. But that is what Ammon Shea set out to do with the OED. He says he read it in order, all twenty volumes, 21,730 pages, beginning with A and ending with Z. One sees this immediately as a stunt. Shea, who describes himself as a former street musician, gondolier, and furniture mover, aspires to be the David Blaine of wordland. He embarks on a feat of endurance evidently pointless and perhaps a bit mad. It takes a toll on his physical being: in the course of his narrative he reports headaches, neck pain, deteriorating eyesight, and episodes of nausea. (“Oh, come on,” you’re thinking, “it’s only a dictionary.” Yes, but it’s a monster, 138 pounds, 615,000 word forms illustrated by 2.4 million quotations. He is reading the Second Edition and barely mentions the online juggernaut, which will soon have doubled in size.) So why does he do it? There’s the inevitable Mount Everest chestnut, “Because it’s there.” He has a thousand-volume dictionary collection and a former lexicographer girlfriend. Anyway, he loves the words.

Shea reads “eight or ten hours each day,” writing down words he finds especially lovely and strange. Sometimes he has opinions about particular letters: “I find B wildly entertaining.” “The letter I tastes like it is full of capers, and I hate capers.” ” Q is a boring letter.” Also he starts to notice how many words denote “a stupid person” and how many more “a woman of dubious moral fiber.” (It’s true—even Cawdrey has quite a few of these: baud, “whore”; concubine, “harlot, or light huswife.” One can’t help but think of the cliché about Eskimos having an abundance of words for snow.) Mainly, though, Shea’s book is a compilation of words: special excerpts from the OED, with commentary. He rephrases the definitions, and he tends to favor the truly rare and obsolete—words that the language has shed like flakes of dead skin—but many are beauties nonetheless:

constult, to act stupidly together.

latibulate, to hide oneself in a corner.

yepsen, the amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also, the two cupped hands themselves.

It is in this respect a backward-looking adventure. As the journey wears on, Shea says he feels “the entire range of emotions that a great book will call forth from its reader.” I think we may take this with a grain of salt. He claims:

All of the human emotions and experiences are right there in this dictionary, just as they would be in any fine work of literature. They just happen to be alphabetized.

Here we finally reach the olifaunt in the room. They don’t “just happen” to be alphabetized. We take alphabetical order for granted—in the modern world it is ubiquitous and second nature—so we forget how counterintuitive it first seemed. It is an ordering scheme divorced from sense, narrative, chronology, and anything else to do with meaning. As a new invention, it was a game-changer (not yet in the OED), critical for the organization and promulgation of knowledge, enabling humans to store and retrieve bits of information with unprecedented efficiency—that is, to behave as computers avant la lettre. Cawdrey, in 1604, had to explain it step by step—algorithmically—in a special note to the reader:


Thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand…. Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v) looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with (ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of that letter. And so of all the rest. &c.

This was unnatural, mechanical, and arbitrary. All alphabetical order had going for it was that it worked. And now, four centuries later, it may be on the way out. We can type our words into the search box and let computers do the dirty work.

“If Shakespeare had been able to Google…,” writes Roy Blount Jr., “oh, never mind.” Blount is usually described as a humorist, which is a long way from a lexicographer. He treats the verb to Google with due seriousness (as does the OED, since 2006), but he cannot help digressing to googol (a very large number), goggle, googly-eyed, googly (a cricket term), and glug, because he cares profoundly about the sounds of words. His twenty previous books have been loping reportage and rambling memoirs and occasional doggerel, treating sports, dogs and cats, and above all the culture of the American South, but his latest, Alphabet Juice, may be his best and most heartfelt. Which is odd, because it’s in alphabetical order. Nonetheless it is most suitable for reading, not for reference. Your chances of looking up any particular word are slim to nil.

In the tradition of the first English dictionaries, it has a very long subtitle—The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory—and this suggests the nature of the contents: some definition, some etymology, admonitions, jokes (see fart jokes), yarns, name-dropping, some long-remembered peeves, and some fresh comedy culled from cyberspace. Alphabet Juice is a hodgepodge, in other words. Blount has emptied his notebook. He mixes traditionalism with futurism and veers from schoolmasterly to slapstick. It makes for a perfect wordbook for our peculiar times, when the language is running so gloriously amok.

Example of yarn + name-dropping + a semantic delicacy that would make any lexicographer proud: scrooch. This doesn’t rate an entry of its own; it appears as a digression within an entry (surprisingly long) for tump. Blount quotes the definition of scrooch in the American Heritage Dictionary (he is a member of its usage panel, as am I): “To hunch down, crouch.” Then he quibbles: “Well, not exactly. To scrooch is to compress oneself in a direction.” Then he helpfully provides an example sentence: “Nanette, scrooch over on the couch, Sugar, so Aunt Lotty can get situated.” Finally he relates a story Flannery O’Connor told him involving the difference between a screech owl and a scrooch owl:

That’s one of those little owls that land on the same limb as another bird and then scrooch over, and scrooch over, and scrooch him all the way off the end and grab him.

These subtleties have so far eluded the OED, which nonetheless tracks the word through its Southern roots as well as an appearance in James Joyce’s Ulysses and urges us to “see also” scrinch, scringe, and scrunch.

Southern folksiness has always been a part of Blount’s writerly persona as well as a target for his tireless investigation. He devotes an entry here to figures of speech, folksy, which so far as I know have not yet been used in literature, such as “I feel like a hog starin’ at a wristwatch.” This kind of thing may not be to everyone’s taste. Anyway, it’s not genuine folksiness but maybe a sort of meta-folksiness. (See meta : “Meaning, how shall I say, ‘at a level of, like, likety-like,’ as in metafiction, which is fiction rolling its eyes in our (or its own) direction….”) Being Southern and folksy seems to imply a preference for the lowbrow over the highbrow. So on the one hand Blount cannot resist writing an entry on the expression avant la lettre, but on the other hand he begins by assuring us that he himself has “never quite had the nerve” to use it:

Not because of anti-French sentiment, but because it never seems to look quite natural when I try it on. I decline, with regret, to wear a cowboy hat for the same reason.

But maybe you can make it—the expression—work for you. It means “before there was a name for [some quality or category].” As in, “My great-uncle Llewellyn was a flower child avant la lettre.” “Robert E. Lee was passive-aggressive avant la lettre.” Or, to be really literal, “Snakes were making the s sound avant la lettre.”

Blount wants to be easygoing but he also wants to be stern. He sits on that usage panel, after all. He will not surrender to people who mispronounce zoology or misuse hopefully—people, he says, “who think of themselves as realistic latitudinarians.” He will have no truck with thusly. Equally as makes him cringe. He insists on taking care with hyphens, in old words and in new, as in e-mail, for example. As a purist, he generally objects to the tackiness of disguising profanity with hyphens or asterisks, “which must cause children to ask, ‘Mommy, what does ” s minus minus t ” spell?'”; yet he will make exceptions on aesthetic grounds, as in ” f*rt does have an expressive look to it.” These are tough times for perfectionists. If you Google “straightlaced,” you get twice as many hits as for “straitlaced,” but you should know that the mob is wrong, unless you are a realistic latitudinarian.

Blount doesn’t mention that one. He saves his most withering scorn for those who are deaf to the nice distinctions that keep the language, as he sees it, honest and strong. A cloud darkens his day when The New York Times Magazine quotes a woman as saying, “I don’t want to get my butt in a ringer.” A double cloud: he asks the woman to visualize how anyone could “get his or her butt in a wringer,” and he asks the Times “> “what in the world would be a ringer in this context?” Spelling matters in the tiniest detail, he insists. Do not conflate flak, anti-aircraft fire, with flack, a press agent. “If you write that someone has ‘caught a little flack,’ you are writing that someone has chased down and grabbed a diminutive pufferist.”

And yet…he has an entry for the word teh. This is a word—if it is a word—originating in the obvious trivial typing error for the. It has evolved, arguably, into a distinct organism. Technophiles may ask whether a new computer product has teh snappy—meaning that unmeasurable feeling of speed. The OED hasn’t yet caught up, but Blount cites, a lively new institution that is not a dictionary but something like an online scriptorium. “I gather,” he writes, “that teh connotes big-time.” It is an intensified version of its parent.

Elsewhere online, one can find an ongoing argument about teh at Wikipedia, the collective global encyclopedia. Wikipedia gives the word its own entry and threatens to take it away; it has already been “nominated for deletion,” because Wikipedia, too, has its purists as well as its latitudinarians. The arguments range from “God, this is stupid…. Where do we draw the line” and “Try an article for every Internet cool-dude misspelling, or shibboleth as they are now known, apparently,” to “Hey, I was actually curious about what teh was about and did a Google search that directed me to this very useful article. Now I understand.” To which I say: see also pwn.*

Blount (pronounced blunt) claims as a distant ancestor Thomas Blount, another of the early English dictionary makers, who published in 1656 a book with the grand title of Glossographia. It listed more than four times as many words as Cawdrey’s and defined them much more elaborately, too. Compared to Cawdrey, Thomas Blount was a bit of a yakker:

lizard, a little beast much like our Euet, but without poison, breeding in Italy, and other hot Countries; whose dung is good to take away spots in the eye, and clear the sight; and its head being bruised and laid to, draws out thorns, or any thing sticking in the flesh.

ventriloquist, one that hath an evil spirit speaking in his belly, or one that by use and practise can speake as it were out of his belly, not moving his lips. [As far as the OED knows, this is the first appearance of the word in English.]

Blount was a true obsessive—the early and late Blounts have this in common. He told his readers he had spent more than twenty years gleaning words from Turkish (seraglio), French, Spanish, and Latin, and books of divinity (shibboleth), plus “the mouths of common people” and “tradesmen.” “I heard of piazza, balcone, &c. in London: And in the Country, of hocktide, minnying days, lurdanes, quintins, &c.” Thomas, in the seventeenth century, and Roy, in the twenty-first, share an affection for the mongrel story of their native tongue—words borrowed and altered from afar—and they share the joy of sound: “the choice of Words,” the early Blount wrote, “which are to be liked and approved according to their tone, and the sweetness of their cadence, that is, as they run musically in the Ear.”

Blount the latter cares about this above all: how the words run musically in the ear. He has an argument to make about the connection between sound and sense—namely, that there is a connection, a pervasive one, contrary to the standard view of linguists that the relation between the form of a word and its meaning is arbitrary. Blount threads his argument all through his alphabetical compilation. At arbitrary we learn that “linguisticians assert that words are arbitrary symbols for the meanings they represent.” Nice dig, that linguisticians—an oddball term that, according to the OED, evokes mortician and “implies pretentiousness.” Blount finds several useful punching bags, among them Marshall McLuhan, who considered the phonetic alphabet to be a technology of alienation: “semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds.” Anyway, he’s having none of it:

As a principle of English-language appreciation, at least, separation of sound from sense is audibly, utterly wrong.

Let’s riffle through the dictionary: shrivel, shove, scribble, scrawl, screwdriver, skimpy, silly, feeble, scoop, scramble, amble, scour, scraggy, ragged, stub, chewy, chunk, chock, contact, doughy, doughty, haughty….

This listing goes on and on—“… obfuscate, queasy…”—he calls such words sonicky, his own neologism for words whose sound “does somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word”—“… frowzy, froth, moan, mope, mellow, neat, nebbish…”—until your head spins or your ears ring. “Are there not sonic as well as geographical grounds for calling a teeny beach outfit a bikini instead of a smock ?”

He’s not talking only about onomatopoeia, the easy case of words that echo a real-world sound: boom, murmur, ticktock. By sonicky Blount means something subtler, something kinesthetic, where meaning adheres to the sound, or aligns with it. Chunky. Blink. Ornery. (Don’t you hear it?) So he allies himself with those who call themselves sound symbolists: linguists and anthropologists who emphasize direct connections between sound and meaning, as opposed to semioticians and structural linguists and the rest of the prevailing orthodoxy who take arbitrariness as an axiom.

The problem is that there are just so many words—so many semantic categories and subcategories looking for expression. If you open a dictionary to a random word, it’s not likely to be sonicky at all. Blount sniffs at the unsonicky words “that have been made up by scholars and technocrats,” but it’s not their fault; no one could come up with sounds that sensuously evoke the meanings of penicillin or paragraph or popularity or permanence. Not to mention random monosyllables like bat, hat, rat, and sat. Meanwhile, so much of our ballooning language is not oral but electronic. Teh is not only unsonicky; it is unwriterly—an artifact of the keyboard, an arbitrary device if there ever was one.

In some places he takes his argument too far for me. When he claims that foot is sonicky—“ f for the sensitive cushioned padfall of ball and heel, oo for the aloofness of the arch, and t for the tip of the toe pushing off”—I just start feeling tone deaf. But language is fluid; words have affinities for other words; a process of evolution goes on, and the words best suited to survive may well be the ones that sound right—whatever that may mean. Also, it’s surely true that our brains don’t keep words neatly slotted in airtight compartments. Scrooch bleeds into scoot and crouch and encroach, and strait mingles with straight, and hanky-panky inspires heebie-jeebies. This is a debate that linguists will never resolve, because it’s partly a matter of taste. Whether you stress arbitrariness or sound symbolism depends on which end of the cow you look at. Or listen to. Right now the language has few keener listeners than Blount.

This Issue

December 18, 2008