The Definition of a Dictionary.

Stefan Fatsis has a good (and very long) piece in Slate on Merriam-Webster’s revision of its unabridged dictionary; if you want to know what ever happened to the long-promised Fourth, you will learn all about it. It also turns out — and this saddens me — that there isn’t going to be a 12th edition of the Collegiate any time soon:

Sales of the 11th edition of the Collegiate, released in 2003, didn’t approach the boffo figures of the 1980s, failing to crack a million in its first year and declining ever since. Morse doesn’t envision publishing a 12th edition anytime soon. Given the dearth of competitive pressure on the print side now, “trying to tear apart the Collegiate every 10 years and give it that level of scrutiny is something we just don’t have to do,” he says. “No dictionary user online is looking around for the copyright date.”

And here I was thinking it might be my birthday gift this year! Anyway, there’s plenty of good stuff there (including a link to LH, which I appreciate); I’ll just quote a couple of very different new etymologies, which delight me equally. The first is for blephar-:

borrowed from Greek, from blépharon “eyelid,” probably going back to a derivative from the base of blépein “to see”

Eric Hamp (in Glotta, vol. 72 [1994], p. 15) suggests *gʷlep-H-ro– from the base *gʷlep– (whence blépein). The variants in initial gl– found in Doric—glépharon for blépharon—are explained by Hamp as outcomes of word-initial *gʷl– with syllabification of the –l-, yielding *gul-, reduced by analogy to *gl– (see his earlier article “Notes on Early Greek Phonology,” Glotta, vol. 38 [1960], p. 202). The aspirate in blépharon, according to Hamp, would be parallel to kephalḗ “head” from *kep-h₂-l-. Alternatively, Robert Beekes sees the g-/b- alternation as a sign of pre-Greek substratum, citing Edzard Furnée, Die wichtigsten konsonantischen Erscheinungen des Vorgriechischen (Mouton, 1972), p. 389—though both Beekes and Furnée observe that the evidence for this particular alternation is exiguous.

The second is asshat (a fine word, also included in the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary):

The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious earlier history as a sort of cultural meme. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from recent films: “Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!” (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, Raising Arizona, 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen); “I like your ass. Can I wear it as a hat?” (a character’s parody of a flirtatious advance, City Slickers, 1991, script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel). Of more immediate etymological relevance may be this dialogue sequence from the television series That ’70’s Show: “RED: Eric, if you don’t want to wear your ass for a hat, you’ll get up here, pronto! DONNA: You better go. You know how that ass-hat screws up your hair” (“Red Fired Up,” Episode 24 of Season 2, script by Dave Schiff, first aired May 8, 2000). The current meaning of asshat may be a reanalysis, perhaps in part based on the expression “have one’s head up one’s ass” (meaning “to be obtuse, be insufficiently conscious of one’s surroundings”), perhaps in part due to simple phonetic similarity to asshole. A more precise history will depend on the location of further attestations.

“I make it sound very scholarly,” says etymologist Jim Rader. “I want to be very scholarly about a very ridiculous word…. I just figured I’m writing this stuff down anyway, so why not put it in the dictionary?” Why not indeed?


  1. In the multiply hyperlinked passage “There is more writing about language than ever before. (Really, there is. Honest. I swear. No, double swear.)”, the word “about” links to LH.

  2. The list of the hundred most looked-up words is interesting; one may guess which are looked up for their meaning and which for their spelling (and “irregardless” just to see whether it’s Not Even A Word). “Que” [‘Quebec’] ]is hypothesised as a false match for “queue”; similarly “comradery” and “camaraderie” are both listed, as are “supercede” and “supersede”; in both cases the higher-ranked variant is that which I would have called a misspelling.

  3. David Marjanović says

    So an asshat is not a straw hat put on a donkey?

  4. While, I have a sense of nostalgia for the treeware dictionary, we are in a new age. I haven’t used a hard copy dictionary in several years although I have a MWCD somewhere in the house. I use a couple of English dictionaries on my iPhone and iPad frequently and use the OED online rather than drive 15 miles roundtrip to the library.

    The online dictionaries have several advantages. They are almost always available, searches can be much smarter and one can listen to the pronunciation of a word. In addition, they can be updated continuously by the publisher.

    I suspect that our children or grandchildren, even the most erudite, will never open a hard-copy dictionary.

  5. I suspect that our children or grandchildren, even the most erudite, will never open a hard-copy dictionary.

    Oh, I’m quite sure you’re wrong about that (the most erudite in any generation do far weirder things than opening hard-copy dictionaries), but the general trend is of course clear.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Well, my children and grandchildren, as represented by one of them, my son, 16 years today, certainly will. He finally got the dictionary of Ancient Greek he’s been wishing for since he was 11.

  7. Yes, my grandsons (seven and ten) both use hard-copy dictionaries (and in general read lots of books).

  8. “Oh, I’m quite sure you’re wrong about that (the most erudite in any generation do far weirder things than opening hard-copy dictionaries), . . .”

    I don’t want to be argumentative, but hard-copy dictionaries in the future depend on two things: A willing consumer in a market increasingly dominated by electronic sources of information, and a producer willing to print books for a declining market.

    Hard-copy books are, as we all know, challenged as well, but electronic dictionaries have even more advantages – convenience, smartness, up todatedness and cost of production.

    As an example, I do carry a hard-copy book with me on trips (short & long) but I don’t recall ever carrying a dictionary (except English-foreign language). Now, one can easily carry an electronic dictionary wherever they carry a phone with no extra trouble.

  9. As I wrote above, the general trend is clear, and I’m not arguing about any of your reasoning. My quarrel is purely with the overly absolute way you stated it; it is one thing to say consulting hard-copy dictionaries will be rare, quite another to say it will be utterly unknown.

  10. Okay, I will go along with “rare.”

    I haven’t researched the subject, but I strongly suspect that hard-copy encyclopedia’s are mostly extinct (in terms of current sales). Wikipedia is great and extremely useful, but I wish there were a more edited, authoritative source of (current, updated) general information.

  11. The World Book Encyclopedia still publishes annual hard-copy editions; the 2015 edition (20 vols.) costs $1149; the 2014 edition is currently discounted to $649.

  12. @John Cowan: Okay, thanks. But, a little pricey. I wonder who is buying them.

  13. Obsolete technology can hang on but not forever… For example, after the invention of the printing press, an author would hand-write a fair-copy of their manuacript instead of having it printed if they only meant to show it to a limited circle of friends. But the typewriter, and then the computer, definitively abolished handwritten manuscripts. Nowadays you do occasionally have one but it is done as an art project rather than a book per se.

  14. But the typewriter, and then the computer, definitively abolished handwritten manuscripts.

    Again, you’re being too absolute. Nothing has been “definitively abolished”; people still write things by hand, if not as often. And lots of people read handwritten manuscripts; ask any archivist. It’s common, but wrong, to take technological changes as suddenly abolishing everything that came before.

  15. The dead media list (itself apparently dead)

  16. AJP Snøhatt says

    Online dictionaries of languages into English (at least the free ones) are still a very long way behind books.

  17. AJP Snøhatt: I agree. They are handy and easy, but not as much information. I have a couple of Arabic-English apps, which I use for quick lookup, but they are not even close to the hard-copy “Hans Wehr” or “al-Mawrid.” And, the same for Hebrew.

  18. Has anyone here used Logeion (, the U. Chicago site with multiple Greek-to-English and Latin-to-English dictionaries? I’m not sure whether it’s free. I think I paid (not much) for access myself, but my students have been using it at school for free, so either I remember wrong, or they’ve changed over to free access, or they provide free access for addresses of the form

    It does not include some of the most up-to-date dictionaries (e.g. Oxford Latin Dictionary) for copyright reasons, but it does provide some, and it definitely includes unabridged dictionaries. It also does not seem to do English-to-Latin (or Greek), which is too bad. Apparently it’s stored more as indexed text files than a true database.

    One of the dictionaries (LaNe) is actually Latin-to-Dutch. I believe it’s provided because it is the most trustworthy for quantities of words, particularly ‘hidden quantities’, which the Oxford Latin Dictionary shamefully omits. They only affect the pronunciation, not the ability to scan a verse correctly, so students don’t need to know them for verse composition classes. Caring only about the correct scansion, not the pronunciation, seems very 19th-century. I use the on-line LaNe all the time, despite knowing no Dutch.

  19. Very useful! I had no problem accessing it, so I’ve added it to the sidebar links.

  20. Here’s another etymological triumph by Jim Rader, via Kory Stamper’s book: he found the forgotten origin of chaus, an old name for a medium-sized cat species native to India and surrounding areas, now known by the name of jungle cat. It’s another misreading of a Latin manuscript, like Iona!

    This one comes from Pliny, whose Natural History describes an exotic animal exhibited in Rome, the chama, “having the figure of a wolf, with the spots of the pard”. Chama is now considered the correct reading, interpreted as a neuter noun in the accusative, but until the 19th century it was read as chaum and interpreted as a masculine noun in the accusative, with presumed nominative chaus. Still nobody knows what exactly this animal was or where its name came from; it may have been some kind of lynx.

    In 1776, a German naturalist described a cat specimen from the Caucasus, naming it chaus after Pliny; this species got the Linnean name Felis chaus and was called chaus in English for a while, until that name fell out of use in the 20th century. The connection with Pliny was quickly forgotten: the Century Dictionary entered chaus with derivation “appar. from a native name”, and Merriam-Webster’s unabridged editions entered it without any etymology. The OED missed it entirely.

    And now Jim Rader has knitted the frayed strands of history back together.

  21. Excellent!

  22. So, whence chama?

  23. Nobody knows! It’s a hapax in Latin, used only by Pliny and only there. For extra added confusion, Pliny also uses a word chema or chama (f.) for a gaping mussel or cockle, and that’s also of unknown origin.

    I’m going to ding Merriam-Webster on the definition, though: “an Old World wildcat, possibly the African wildcat or jungle cat”. Possibly? That sounds like trying to interpret Pliny. But they should be defining the word as it was used *in English* in relatively recent times, and that’s not “possibly”, it’s definite. They should say: “a name formerly applied to the jungle cat and occasionally to other Asian or North African wild cats.”

  24. Besides ghost words, The Oxford English Dictionary also has at least one ghost meaning (created by no later than March 1912 when a definer was given too short a quotation as the basis for a definition and, instead of asking for a longer, more revealing one, proceeded to misdefine the word), which Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language: Unabridged (1961) uncritically copied (with a slight change and with a second ghost meaning), and which Roget’s International Thesaurus, uncritically copying from one or both of those dictionaries, has perpetuated at least since 1962.

    The unrevealing because too short quotation given the definer was “I have some theatricals at home.”

    The misdefinition in the OED is ‘stage properties’ (for which the dictionary, naturally, has no additional quotations).

    The misdefinition in NID3 is ‘theater properties or memorabilia’ (for which it has no quotations).

    The fuller hence revealing quotation is:

    “My dear Mrs. Trollope,

    “I was out of town on Sunday, or I should have answered your note immediately on its arrival. I cannot have the pleasure of seeing the famous “medium” to-night, for I have some theatricals at home. But I fear I shall not in any case be a good subject for the purpose, as I altogether want faith in the thing.”

    It now becomes clear that the writer (Charles Dickens) meant the word in the sense of ‘amateur theatrical performances’, which is the meaning he always attached to the word.

    In their advertizing, Oxford University Press claims that the OED is “The definitive record of the English language” and Merriam-Webster claims that it is “The Voice of Authority.”

    Referring to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, Mariano José de Larra y Sánchez de Castro (1809-1837) said that it had “la misma autoridad que todo el que tiene razón, cuando él la tiene” = ‘the same authority as everyone has -– provided that person is right’.

    Details here:

    Gold, David L. 2020. ”Ghost Meanings Created by Dictionaries: The Case of Dickens’s Use of the Word theatricals.” Dickens Quarterly. Vol. 37. No. 3. September. Pp. 226-236.

  25. As seen in this thread.

Speak Your Mind