The erudite and generous MMcM has sent me a copy of Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, and I will be enjoying exploring it. This is not one of the silly books with pseudo-words of the type I discussed here; Mrs. Byrne spent ten years trawling through “specialized dictionaries and unabridged works too bulky for browsing,” as her husband’s introduction puts it (though I personally have never found a book “too bulky for browsing”) and plucked out her favorite oddities. Some of them are disappointingly ordinary (paladin, screed, trefoil), but the vast majority are genuinely rare, and many cry out to be used more widely: cooster ‘a worn-out libertine,’ crapaudine ‘swinging on top and bottom pivots like a door,’ lippitude ‘sore or bleary eyes.’
This ties in nicely with Nicholson Baker’s review (from the NY Times Book Review) of Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, which I was reading just before the Byrne book arrived. Shea “owns about a thousand dictionaries,” some of which he bought from a book dealer named Madeline, who owns 20,000 dictionaries. These are my kind of people. At any rate, Shea decided to spend a year reading the OED (supported by his tolerant girlfriend, a psychology teacher, one presumes, because he spends all day in the basement of the Hunter College library, trying to avoid eyestrain and madness: “Sometimes I get angry at the dictionary and let loose with a muffled yell”), and the book sounds like an enjoyable read, as of course is the review. I’ll quote the odd-word bits:

There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose)… Acnestis — the part of an animal’s back that the animal can’t reach to scratch. And bespawl — to splatter with saliva. In Chapter D, Shea encounters deipnophobia, the fear of dinner parties; Chapter K brings kankedort, an awkward situation… He is fond of polysyllabic near-homonyms — words like incompetible (outside the range of competency) and repertitious (found accidentally), which are quickly swallowed up in the sonic gravitation of familiar words. And a number of Shea’s finds deserve prompt resurrection: vicambulist, for instance — a person who wanders city streets.

Some of these are in Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, but most aren’t; I imagine if you spent long enough at it you could compile several such books without repetition. English is a bottomless word-hoard.


  1. ‘Acnestis’ has long been in my top 5. I didn’t know ‘cooster’ but like it.

  2. “Madeline,” his dictionary provider, is Madeline Kripke.

  3. My first contact with Mrs Byrne’s was when someone quite learned insisted in a web forum that zzxjoanw was a Maaori drum because it was in Mrs Byrne’s. The bizarre experience of actually knowing for a fact that someone much better educated than I was talking out of their hat (present company emphatically excluded) was gratifying to my ego, but put me off Mrs Byrne, given the slur on one of my country’s official languages.

  4. Darren Shupe says

    “Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary” is terrific… picked it up at a library sale years ago and it’s been good for countless hours of browsing. Shame on anyone who would practice floccinaucinihilipilification* when assessing it! 🙂
    (* “The categorizing of something as worthless trivia.” – Mrs. Byrne’s)

  5. John Emerson says

    Many technical dictionaries have usages and words which stick in your memory, making you wish you could use them occasionally.
    I remember that in one sentence of Roscoe Pound’s book on constitutional law I had to look up “nugatory”, “hortatory”, and “fiduciary”; I believe that “eleemosynary” showed up later. (“Easement” and “consortium” are also cool words). A birthing manual had “lochea”, “meconium”, and “colestrum”, all body fluids unique to childbirth. In the veterinary manual there were usages rather than words: “thrifty” means something like “thriving but not overfed”; “stockyard fever” is a disease characteristic of animals waiting for slaughter; one of the symptoms is “an attitude of dejection”.

  6. John Emerson says

    Madeline Kripke: sister of Saul Kripke, one of the dominant figures in nglo-American philosophy.

  7. John Emerson says


    The two-Z barrier was breached many years ago in a specialized dictionary, Rupert Hughes’s The Musical Guide (later, Music-Lovers Encyclopedia), published in various editions between 1905 and 1956. Its final entry, ZZXJOANW (shaw) Maori 1.Drum 2.Fife 3.Conclusion, remained unchallenged for more than seventy years until Philip Cohen pointed out various oddities: the strange pronunciation, the off diversity of meanings (including “conclusion”) and the non-Maori appearance of the word. (Maori uses the fourteen letters AEGHIKMNOPRTUW, and all words end in a vowel). A hoax clearly entered somewhere; no doubt Hughes expected it to be obvious, but he did not take into account the credulity of logologists, sensitized by dictionary-sanctioned outlandish words such as mlechchha and qaraqalpaq.

    There is nothing outlandish about qaraqalpaq, however; it’s an standard, common Turkish word, also transliteratable as kharakhalpakh or Karakalpak. Mleccha likewise is, as far as I know, a perfectly legit word.
    The pronunciation given, “shaw” makes it virtually certain that the hoax was a dig at the spelling-reformer and music critic GBS. It reminds you of the “shawm” witticism about Shaw:

    Shaw once got a letter that got the better of him. It was addressed to George Bernard Shawm. In a beard-tossing fury, Shaw roared to his wife that his correspondent could not even spell the name of the world’s greatest man. Moreover, fumed G.B.S., there was no such word as “shawm.” Shaw’s wife, one of the world’s most martyred women, quietly disagreed, led Shaw to a dictionary and pointed to “shawm … an old-fashioned wind instrument long since passed out of common use.”

  8. John Emerson says

    Scratch kharakhalpakh. “Q” often is transliterated “kh”, but I don’t think that this transformation works with qaraqalpaq.

  9. What a great story! Now, the question is, was Mrs. Byrne in on the joke? I’m guessing yes, since she shows signs of sly humor in other places.

  10. John Emerson says

    Incidentally, score one for Wiki. I occasionally have to argue with people who believe that Wiki is trashy and second rate, but it’s really full of good stuff you couldn’t have found 10 years ago.
    What it isn’t is “authoritative” or “reliable”. You have to read critically. But even the lack of authority is a plus. You really can’t use Wiki to win arguments. It’s just a source of interesting stuff.

  11. Richard Sabey says

    “The two-Z barrier was breached […] qaraqalpaq.” From Philip Cohen’s article “What’s the Good Word?” in Word Ways, Nov. 1978, p. 195, and quoted by Ross Eckler in his “Making the Alphabet Dance”, ch. 5.
    Although I love the richness of the vocabulary of English, I usually take a dim view of collections of odd words, but I like some of the examples you present here, because they sound as if they might actually be useful if only they were well-known.
    @John Emerson. You write “colestrum”. Did you mean “colostrum”?

  12. Crown, A. J. says

    Saul Kripke wrote Naming and Necessity which, I’m guessing, is read by linguists. There was a hilarious review of a book about Kripke in the London Review Of Books http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n20/fodo01_.html
    The review is by the great Jerry Fodor — one of my favourite LRB writers, along with T. Eagleton — who tells me all I need to know about what’s going on in Anglo-American philosophy.

  13. mollymooly says

    “Mlechchha” and “mleccha” both — shheehsh!
    I learnt “recto-verso” for “printed on both sides” in French class; though anglophone printing professionals use it, it deserves wider currency in these days of desktop publishing.

  14. Crown, A. J. says

    Don’t argue. Wiki, like life in general, can be both trashy and second rate as well as being at the same time full of good stuff you couldn’t have found before.

  15. Crown, A. J. says

    You have, or had, to know what an easement is for one part of the architectural licensing exam. I’m going to start using crapaudine on working drawings. Let the contractor figure it out.

  16. Chambers’ Dictionary is a good read. Some definitions: fog: thick mist; mist: thin fog. Lunch: a restaurateur’s term for everyman’s dinner; middle age: the period between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner; eclair: a cake, long in shape but short in duration. And from Haugen’s Norwegian-English Dictionary: ‘kanskje: maybe, as in “Kanskje blir vi ferdige med denne ordboka engang” (maybe we’ll finish this dictionary sometime)’

  17. I admit to prefering flaneur to vicambulist.

  18. John Emerson says

    Thank you for the Fodor, Kron.

  19. Flaneur! I knew that definition sounded familiar.
    Sounds like I’ve finally been given a word to describe why Dummkatz keeps me around – aside from cleaning the litter, I guess.
    I’m afraid I only own about a score of encyclopedia, myself.

  20. Crown, A. J. says

    You’re welcome. I was wondering where all the people had gone, and then my wife told me the olympic games started today. Everyone’s inside watching television.

  21. Graham Asher says

    I wonder where the definition of crapaudine as ‘swinging on top and bottom pivots like a door’ comes from. My SOED has
    crapaudine /”krapədi:n, krapə”di:n/ n.LME. [(O)Fr. f. med.L crapaudinus, -ina, f. as prec.: see -INE1.]1 = TOADSTONE n.1 Long obs. exc. Hist. LME. 2 An ulcer on the coronet of a horse. M18.
    which links to
    toadstone /”təʊdstəʊn/ n.1M16. [f. TOAD + STONE n., tr. L batrachites, Gk batrakhites or med.L bufonitis, crapaudinus, Fr. crapaudine. Cf. BUFONITE, CRAPAUDINE.] A stone or stonelike object, esp. a fossil fish tooth, supposed to have been formed in the head or body of a toad, formerly used as an amulet etc. and credited with therapeutic or protective properties.
    which is even more fun.

  22. I like words that are simple, elegant and under-used: “apt”, for instance – so much better than the loathsome “appropriate” which seems to combine affectation with Stalinist threat.

  23. 1876 GWILT Archit. Gloss., Crapaudine Doors, those which turn on pivots at top and bottom.

  24. John Emerson says

    A new shibboleth for when Dearie takes power.
    “Excuse me, comrade (you don’t mind if I call you ‘comrade’, do you?) Did I just hear you use the word ‘appropriate’?”

  25. I heard an NPR interview with Shea today about his book, and started doing the math: 21,730 pages in 365 days is 59.5 pages a day, and he must have taken some days off. Perhaps he explains his schedule in the book, but assuming a pretty intensive 60 hours a week, he read 7 pages per hour, or a page every 8.5 minutes. Under three minutes per column. There are 291,500 entries; so he read 1.5 entries per minute. There are 2,412,400 usage quotations; that comes to a shade under 13 per minute (without allowing time for definitions and other content). Overall, about 300 words per minute. That’s pretty speedy for material that dense.

  26. Yeah, I’m guessing he concentrated on the definitions and skimmed everything else.

  27. John Emerson says

    When he wrote it up, I imagine he wrote up the interesting parts. Nobody could ever proved that he was skimming.
    Someone with the online version could write an even more interesting book by using the many sorts of searches allowed.

  28. Crown, A. J. says

    You always see TOP & BTM PIVOT HINGE written on door schedules, and it’s slightly irritating because a pivot isn’t really a hinge at all, it’s a pivot. I’ll be writing CRAPAUDINE, or even TOADSTONE from now on, it’s shorter and so much more… apt.

  29. Look here, Emers, even “suitable” is more apt than “appropriate”.

  30. Crown, A. J. says

    I meant suitable, thank you. What are you, dearie, a human thesaurus?

  31. John Emerson says

    “Inapt” doesn’t seem to substitute consistently for “inappropriate”, however.

  32. John Emerson says

    For example, it would be inapt to say “She felt that his advances were insulting and inapt.”

  33. We’re all human thesauruses on this bus.

  34. Et alors? Probably best not to be an erudite to recognize supercilliousness when it appears disguised as a “word” in a dictionary.

  35. Richard Sabey: I like some of the examples you present here, because they sound as if they might actually be useful if only they were well-known.
    Yes. My favorite candidate for making better-known through use is ploiter.

  36. Doug Sundseth says

    As I’m sure we all know, “apt” is just an abbreviation for “appropriate”*. It should, of course, be written, “ap’t.”, but in these sadly diminished days, such niceties cannot be consistently expected from even the best people.
    * 😎 There being a clear shortage of vaguely plausible false etymologies.

  37. Michael M. Noonan says

    Whoever writes the David Foster Wallace criticism is just about the biggest dolt I’ve ever read. Could it be that no one knows who he is. Wallace will be with us forever and laughing at this website.

  38. Did you have any particular counterargument, or is anyone who criticizes the godlike DFW ipso facto a dolt?

  39. SFReader says

    middle age: the period between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner

    Reminds me hilarious definition in the US Federal aviation regulations:

    Night – The time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the American Air Almanac, converted to local time.

    Russian aviation regulations have even more sophisticated definition:

    day – the time period between the beginning of morning civil twilight and the end of evening civil twilight. Civil twilight ends in the evening when the center of the solar disk is 6 ° below the horizon, and begins in the morning when the center of the solar disk is 6 ° below the horizon.

  40. От зари до зари!

  41. Yes, military definitions are funny. Back in the day we used to laugh at the definition of bush (probably apocryphal) as “several branches thrust into earth at short distance from each other”.

  42. Lars Mathiesen says

    The thing about night and twilight is not that silly to me — exactly when night begins and ends is not part of the meaning of the word itself, so it makes sense to make clear what you mean. On the other hand there is a definition of civil twilight that the military can piggyback on.

    Of course this is ‘civil’ as opposed to ‘astronomical’ twilight, I can see the joke if it was in opposition to ‘military’ twilight; in this case it turns out to be the same.

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