Everybody likes unusual words; that’s why books like They Have a Word for It sell so well (see my grumpy strictures here). I do too (as should be obvious by now), but I have the quirk of insisting that the words actually exist, which makes most such books an annoyance to me. (An exception: Erin McKean’s Weird and Wonderful Words and More Weird and Wonderful Words, whose entries are taken straight from the OED.) Now Grant Barrett, like Erin an actual lexicographer, has come out with The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English: A Crunk Omnibus for Thrillionaires and Bampots for the Ecozoic Age, and I’m delighted to report that not only are the entries impeccably sourced, they’re provided with full citations. If you want to see what it’s like, you have only to visit Grant’s blog Double-Tongued Word Wrester (which I discussed here), since the presentation is the same (and I presume many of the entries in the book are from the blog). Just flipping the pages will introduce you, as it has me, to all manner of hitherto unknown lexical items; on facing pages, for instance, are vogue ‘a tire,’ and (one of my favorites) vuzvuz ‘a derogatory name for an Ashkenazic Jew… This term is usually used within the religion, especially by Sephardic Jews.’ (How my friend Allan would have loved that!)

My only quibble would be that some entries have appeared in other dictionaries; tools of ignorance ‘catcher’s gear’ is in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, for example, and dhimmi ‘a non-Muslim living with limited rights under Muslim rule’ is in the big Webster’s. With so many unrecorded words out there clamoring for recognition, it seems a shame to give preference to those already wearing the crown of legitimacy.


  1. Is curious to know if at some point you harbored the opinion that only words in the OED existed?
    PS: Fascinating blog; was tipped off by my buddy Jason.

  2. Re: vuzvuz: Your link says that the etymology is unverified, but the etymology given in the quotes is definitely the popular understanding among people who use the term.

  3. curious to know if at some point you harbored the opinion that only words in the OED existed?
    No, I was using dictionaries (and reading the front matter, from which I absorbed a good deal of basic linguistic understanding) before I knew the OED existed.
    the etymology given in the quotes is definitely the popular understanding among people who use the term.
    Sure, and it makes sense, but that’s not the same as being a verified etymology. Many, many popularly believed and sensible word origins are wrong. Etymology is hard!

  4. Not all my weird words are from the OED! There are ones not in the OED (yet), but they have all been used (by people other than me).

  5. Vuzvuz is old fashined slang, now in use mainly by old people who wish to sound hip.

  6. Re: not being the verified etymology: I think the word only survives because it has that explanation. Even if the first person to use the term had some completely different reason for it (I don’t know, maybe they knew an Ashkenazi whose name was Vuz Vuzy), I think the “Vus is das?” explanation is in some sense the real etymology, or at least the main one. (Maybe “etymology” isn’t the right word?)
    At any rate, what’s required for an etymology to be “verified”?

  7. Ran: From what I can tell, what’s required is (ideally) a written record of some form, or at least a very informed guess based on what we know about how that specific language evolved through time. That is, if we know that the /p/ sounds at the beginning of words changed to /b/ sounds based on a lot of historical evidence, we can surmise that ‘bat’ came from ‘pat’ in that language, which we may then infer to have been borrowed from another language in the region.

    Such logical chains are always tentative, but they are also always based on research, not old wives’ tales. If you want to talk about word origin stories not based on evidence, etymology is not the right word. ‘Urban legend’ is probably closer.

  8. Chris: Well, how do we know whether it’s based on evidence? I don’t know where that story came from — I’d assume it ultimately comes from someone who was present when the term was coined. So you’re saying the correct term for this explanation of “vuzvuz” is “possible-etymology,-possible-urban-legend”?

  9. Yeah, that about covers it. Slang terms are notoriously hard to provide solid etymologies for; by the time they’ve percolated up to where lexicographers become aware of them, whatever circumstances brought about their origin in some alley, school, prison, or army camp have long been forgotten. That’s why Grant Barrett’s word site is such a valuable thing; he’s trying to catch new words as early as possible (which he can do thanks to the internet), when there may still be some hope of tracing their origins.

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