I don’t even know how to start telling you about Carl Masthay and his obsessively compiled and self-published Kaskaskia Illinois-to-French Dictionary. Just go read the Riverfront Times article (by Matthew Everett); you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder how he finds girlfriends, you may even wind up sending him $30 for the book. No rush; it’s not selling out any time soon. (Thanks to the indefatigable Bob Cohen for the tip, and to Prentiss Riddle for the dictionary link.)

Addendum. I just (Jan. 2006) discovered the Everett article has migrated to another URL; having at first thought it had vanished, I believe I’ll reproduce some of it here just in case:

For Masthay, though, the dictionary—more than twelve years in the works—is a final, monumental validation of the decades he’s spent looking into the hidden corners of language. Through his self-financed and often obsessive research, Masthay has marked out a peculiar and far-reaching patch of intellectual territory, becoming something of a local legend in the process for his intelligence and his eccentricities.

Masthay, 62, came to St. Louis in 1967 after a stint in the U.S. Air Force. He enrolled in graduate school at Washington University, working toward a master’s degree in Chinese. After a year at Wash. U., he went to work at the Mosby publishing company, editing medical texts. He stayed there 33 years, retiring in January 2002. Outside work, he pursued his other interests: biology, astronomy, entomology, archaeology and, in particular, foreign languages.

“I see languages as tools to understand the universe, to understand other people’s cultures,” he says, rubbing his temples as he searches for the exact words he wants. “As a kid, I saw them as codes. I want to know what they’re holding.”

Over the years, Masthay has become a familiar figure on the academic circuit. He counts professors at major universities all over the world as his friends. His living room is cluttered with journals and science magazines, in addition to hundreds of compact discs (mostly world and ethnic music), his own notebooks and photocopied pages of poems, puns and etymologies. He claims fluency in five languages—French, German, Chinese, Spanish, Russian—and competence in dozens more, with texts in Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese lining the shelves in his house.

Masthay occupies a nebulous place among professional scholars; he’s not quite an equal, but many of them appreciate his efforts and consider him a respected contributor to their fields.

“People cite his work. They trust it enough to cite it,” says linguist David J. Costa, who works with Indian tribes to revive dormant languages. “He’s not a linguist in the sense that he has a degree in linguistics, but he’s a linguist in the sense that he speaks a lot of languages. The consensus seems to be that he’s a very reliable editor, a skilled translator, and he’s almost insanely meticulous. And when you’re preparing a scholarly edition of a 300- or 400-year-old manuscript, that attention to detail is essential.” (Masthay would dispute Costa’s characterization of his credentials. He says the work he did to transcribe another Indian document, Schmick’s Mahican Dictionary, would have been enough to qualify him for a doctorate.)

As someone who also “occupies a nebulous place among professional scholars,” I salute his dogged and unremunerative efforts.


  1. have traced linage to point coupe la have enjoyed this search

  2. Just updated the links; I’m still wondering how Masthay is pronounced (and, for that matter, what kind of name it is). Here’s the Writers Directory 2005 entry on him:

    MASTHAY, Carl (David). American, b. 1941. Genres: Anthropology/ Ethnology, Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth sciences, Language/ Linguistics, Sciences, Translations. Career: Mosby Inc., St. Louis, MO, medical editor and senior manuscript editor, 1968-2002; self-employed as an editor, proofreader, translator, and consultant. Stonehenge Viewpoint, Santa Barbara, CA, copyeditor, 1982-88. Works on special linguistic projects involving collection of data and translation. Publications: History of the Masthay Family, 1972, 2nd ed., 1982; Personal Reflections from a China Trip, 1979; Mahican-Language Hymns, Biblical Prose, and Vocabularies from Moravian Sources, 1980; Schmick’s Mahican Dictionary, 1991; Kaskaskia Illinois-to-French Dictionary, 2002. Author of booklets on languages and language study. Contributor to periodicals.

  3. The American Masthays seem to be descendants of a John Joseph Masthay, born c. 1866, in Poland (whatever that means), per the census. His 1925 naturalization card gives his surname as “Masthay (Madthay)” and his “country of birth or allegiance” as “Pol. Aust.” There are some Polish Masteys, too.

  4. I’m wondering how many copies he’s down to:

    >Carl Masthay had 1,960 copies of his Kaskaskia Illinois-to-French Dictionary printed, at fairly exorbitant personal expense, and so far he’s sold about 130

  5. Mastej is the usual spelling.

  6. David Marjanović says

    As someone who also “occupies a nebulous place among professional scholars,”

    The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology actually lets you choose “ABD” for its membership statistics and explains it as “All But Dissertation”.

  7. Keith Ivey says

    I have an ABD, but fortunately my institution (or at least my department) had another name for it, MPhil.

  8. David Marjanović says

    In one of the larger subway stations in Vienna there’s an add for a detective agency founded by a cand. iur., i.e. an ABD of law. I don’t think I’ve seen people using “candidate” as a title otherwise, though.

  9. I have an ABD, but fortunately my institution (or at least my department) had another name for it, MPhil.

    Same here.

  10. Keith Ivey says

    Same institution (but the chemistry department in my case).

  11. John Cowan says

    My resume mentions my tertiary education, but is so worded as not to claim that I hold any degrees. I did not progress far enough into my Ph.D. work even to become an ABD, and I was admitted to that program without quite having the whole of a B.A. As a result, on the face of the Akashic Records I am naught but a high-school graduate, which alarms the people who do background checks on behalf of my employers so that they can turf me out if I have lied about anything. One conscientious researcher asked me for the name of the high school in question, which I gave him; I am far from sure that he was able to actually obtain the records from them after nearly half a century. Nevertheless, I was already working the job, so nothing more was said.

    This is perhaps an overcompensation for my over-degreed father, Thomas A. Cowan, A.B., B.A., M.A., Ph.D., LL.B., S.J.D. In his day, jobs were scarce (the Great Depression) and education was fairly cheap.

  12. John Cowan says

    Now that applying for a job is a matter of filling out rigid forms, however, I have the choice of lying (and being turfed out later) or checking the box “High school diploma” and being (as may well be) pre-excluded. Computers don’t argue.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    This must be really difficult for you….Have you tried (1) to find an astute recruiter or personal contact in the organisation (you put the name of the contact in your cover letter, this is not usually regarded as canvassing, unless the organisation explicitly warns against doing it)? (2) hiring a pro to “sex up” your resume (if you can do this for about $200, it could be worth the investment)?

  14. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I can luckily afford to opt out of any hiring procedure that wants me to enter my CV into some HR system. If the organization is unable to get its head around the fact that my CV has been made available to them on LinkedIn and as a PDF, that falls under “not suffering fools gladly”. They need me, I don’t need them.

    Also I never got further than bsc in Maths and CS, but people don’t get past the “System Administration: 44 years” line and notice. I even have the transcript somewhere, but I haven’t been asked to show it during the last 20 years. The next step up is still called candidatus scientiarum here, with one year to go before a Master’s.

    (And in the old days, completing a major without a minor would earn you a cand.phil).

    TL;DR: John should move to Denmark.

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