Playful neolexia.



This week I’m setting a creative challenge.  It’s an apparently simple task, invent a word, and write the definition of it – as it would be entered in the Oxford English Dictionary.

That means that after you’ve explained its various meanings you need to show the history of your word.  So:

  • Where was it written?
  • Who wrote it?
  • What date was it first published?
  • Quote a line from the publication that shows how your word was used.
  • Include at least two more quotes from later publications that used your word and reference them with author, title and date.

This is a task that we were set on the Imaginative Writing BA, by the late Edmund Cusick.  So far as I’m aware, he created this exercise.


OED mantrap2

Lexiphanic Cogitations *

You might guess, from my title, that I’ve just had a quick browse through a ‘Dictionary of Difficult Words’.  Be honest, were you a little concerned or even put off by my title?  Don’t go away, I promise I’ve stopped now.

Carl_Spitzweg, The Book worm

The Book Worm
by Karl Spitzweg

The thing is, I’ve had this book on my desk for a year or so, and I’ve never used it.  It came from a table-top sale, where it was priced so cheaply that it seemed ‘meant’ for me to take home.  I knew, even then, that I didn’t really want it, but it’s a reference book for goodness sake.

I’d already gathered up a nice selection of truly useful titles from the same seller, who was discounting as my heap grew.  Gullible, me?  How could you think so?  As she said, there’s always room for one more.

There’s not of course.  We learn that at nursery rhyme stage: “There were three in the bed and the little one said…” I don’t remember which book I discarded to make room on the shelf for this dictionary.  No doubt something equally beguiling but ultimately pointless.

I do like dictionaries, I have five, if you include the Scrabble Dictionary, which strictly speaking shouldn’t be called Dictionary, since it neither ‘explains’ nor ‘translates’ its alphabetically arranged words. ‘Explains’ and ‘Translates’ are the key words in the definition given by the on-line Oxford English Dictionary (OED), by the way.

As a quick aside, have you seen a Scrabble Dictionary?  There are combinations of letters in there I don’t want to believe in, especially after a long and painful game with a competitive companion who trawled through it round by round one dark and very long evening.  Since then we’ve laid down a few ground-rules about word-checking, should you be invited for a match here.

But I digress.  Most of my books earn their space on the shelf.  It may be that I open them once in a year, or less, but it’s usually with a purpose, whether that’s entertainment, information or inspiration.

These days I also use the computer to look up things.  Much as I love to turn a page, sometimes it’s either not possible or just takes too long.  My mind boggles at the thought of how many books I’d own if I’d bought all the information I’ve looked up in bound form.  At least when it’s electronically stored it only takes the space of a stick, or a corner of the hard-drive.

I can’t imagine what would get pushed off my bookshelf if I owned the bound volumes of the OED rather than had virtual access to them using my public library log-in.  Now they really would earn their place. Full of useful information about meaning, but then there’s all that additional stuff, the origins of the word, and the previous uses.  It’s not just for looking up something new, or obscure, I’m fascinated by the way word use changes over time, and the easiest place to trace that, is the OED.  If you don’t believe me, look up starve, or bless.

From the moment I was introduced to the OED in the University library, I’ve coveted them, and now, here they are in my bookmarks.  I can open them at any time, and yet fill the two feet of shelf space they should be using up with something, anything, else that catches my attention.

If I was ever cast up on a desert Island with only one book for company I would want it to be a volume of the OED.  I’m not picky, I can manage without the full set.  Any of them would keep me entertained.  Apart from the information, think about what we could do with all those quotes.

Take these four, drawn from starve and bless:

1647   in E. Nicholas Nicholas Papers (1886) I. 70   Were it not for an Irish Barber that was once my servaunt I might have sterved for want of bredd.

1600   P. Holland tr. Livy Rom. Hist. xxi. lviii. 427   Many a man and beast, and seven Elephants..were starved and perished [owing to the intolerable cold].

 c1440   Ywaine & Gaw. 3344   Folk..blissed the time that he was born.

1872   H. W. Longfellow John Endicott ii. ii, in Christus III. 24   Come, drink about! Remember Parson Melham, And bless the man who first invented flip!

I don’t know the originals of any of these, but I’ve ideas about each of them, I feel stories, brewing around them.  How about you?

*Lexiphanic: using many long words

Cogitations: consider seriously