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Category: words

The belated books of 2010: The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699

Firstenglishdictionaryslang Some books landed on my desk in 2010 and sat patiently, waiting their turn, without getting the attention they deserved. Something else always shouldered ahead, loud with immediacy, and these patient yet worthy books grew older and older. This week, each gets a quick treatment on Jacket Copy. And then, each must get off my desk.

Up first: the appropriately old-school First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699.

"It was the first dictionary to concern itself solely with slang vocabulary, or more specifically with 'cant,' " writes John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in his introduction. "Cant was the secret language of the rogues, beggars and vagabonds who peopled the underworld of early England."

A few of its definitions:


Crap, Money. Nim the crap, to Steal the Money. Wheedle for Crap, to coakse Money out of any Body

Fork, a Pick-pocket. Let's fork him, let us Pick that man's Pocket in the newest and most dextrous way: It is, to thrust the Fingers, straight, stiff, open and very quick into the pocket, and so closing them, hook what can be held between them

Funk, Tobacco Smoak; also a strong Smell or Stink.

Layd-up-in Lavender, when any Cloaths or other Moveables are pawn'd or dipt for present Money

Nazie, Drunken

Tears of the Tankard, drops of the good Liquor that fall beside

The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699 is now $25 from the University of Chicago Press. Originally published anonymously, the 2010 version is edited by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in England.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Five literary treats to last all year long


To celebrate the holidays, we wanted to share some literary treats that can't be consumed in one sitting. Some are delivered right to you, others  you need to visit. But each is a deep resource for readers, and can last all year long.

Library of America's Story of the Week. Since publishing a 1,333-page compendium of Herman Melville's South Seas novels in 1982, the Library of America has been issuing works of great American authors. The publisher has hit the expected notes -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine -- and some less expected, including Dashiell Hammett and Philip K. Dick. What you can't predict is what will show up in the Story of the Week, which has featured F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Paul Bowles, Sarah Orne Jewett and Thornton Wilder. Sometimes the stories are actually essays, by the likes of Howard Zinn and Raymond Chandler. Sign up here to recieve the Library of America's Story of the Week for free; it arrives in your e-mail box every Monday.

The Storyville app. Storyville delivers short stories to your iPhone, iPad or iTouch weekly, almost (officially, "40-plus" stories per year.) Launched in December, Storyville features work from both edgy independent publishers and the majors. Most stories are new or newish, and promise to come from a  gifted eclectic set: 88-year-old writers' writer Mavis Gallant, Chicago favorite Joe Meno, New Yorker editor Ben Greenman and others. Expect a few old-style surprises in the mix, from the likes of Franz Kafka and D.H. Lawrence. Launched Dec. 14, the Storyville app is $4.99 for six months, or 20-some stories.

Five Chapters. The simple website for Five Chapters has been around for a while; it launched in October 2006 with a story by Arthur Phillips. Since then it's been publishing a story a week, every week, diced up into five daily parts. Editor Dave Daley founded Five Chapters when he was working at a glossy magazine in New York and saw his colleagues whiling away their spare time on gossip sites; Daley was inspired to put some good writing on the Web. Five Chapters offers short stories from stellar writers such as Jennifer Egan, Yiyun Li and J. Robert Lennon, and excerpted Sam Lipsyte's "The Ask" a month before it was released. All its stories are free; to read, just visit the website and return each day of the week.

Paris Review author interviews. When these went online in September, I was afraid. Afraid to look, because there's so much there to read. Since the 1950s, the Paris Review has been doing long, in-depth interviews with writers; they've released a print series, of four books so far, but the online archive made hundreds available all at once. Ernest Hemingway? Ezra Pound? Anne Sexton? John Updike? Georges Simenon? Jorge Luis Borges? John Fowles? William Gass? Kurt Vonnegut? Goodness, where to begin? How to stop, when this is what you might find? "The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then," William Faulkner said in 1956. "Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." Faulkner and the rest can be read on the Paris Review website for free.

Save the Words. The Oxford English Dictionary launched a clever campaign to Save the Words this fall. Register on the site to adopt at-risk words -- words at risk, that is, of being dropped from the dictionary as they fall out of usage. Adopting means you make a promise to use the word in conversation;  if you hear me throwing around "tabernarious" (meaning of or about taverns) you'll know where it came from. If that seems like too much responsibility, you can simply sign up for the OED's Word of the Day, delivered to you via e-mail, for a year or more, until they run out of words.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Holiday decoration. Credit: Jody Foo via Flickr

Google's massive word database: Fun for the logocentric

Love conquers all -- or at least, hate -- if you can judge by the results of Google's massive new word database. The newly launched database contains words and short phrases from 5.2 million digitized books.

That's more than 500 billion words, according to a report in Thursday's New York Times.

Called the Books Ngram Viewer, the massive and powerful search engine allows you to look for words or phrases, and graphs the frequency of their use over time. 

Below the graph, a series of links for time brackets appears -- click on these and you'll be taken to the Google Book Search results page for the books where the word appears. For example, "The Courtiers Manual Oracle or the Art of Prudence," published in 1685, includes both search terms. It advises, "We must neither love, nor hate  for ever. Live to day with thy Friends, as with those who to morrow may be thy worst Enemies."

It's interesting that the project functions at both this micro level -- zooming in to read passages from a book that's more than 300 years old -- and at the macro level, looking at how a word or phrase has moved through our culture over centuries.

It seems, at first go-round, to work best not as a window into a single idea, but as a way of contrasting two or more words. Consider telegraph, postcard, telegram, telephone -- why did phones dip in the early 1960s? Or radio, television, newspaper,  which intersected around 1970 and which now seem to be in a slide toward the newcomer, Internet.

My phrase efforts didn't work -- no "to be or not to be," really? The Atlantic had better luck.

So I decided to try some popularity contests. Take Chaucer and Shakespeare: Chaucer's greatest prominence was in 1800; since 1805, Shakespeare's fortunes have risen over the other writer's. And James Joyce, although his popularity spiked in the early 1960s, has been trading cultural prominence back and forth fairly evenly with Jack Kerouac, whose "On the Road" was published in 1957.

-- Carolyn Kellogg


Wherefore art thou, refudiate? Sarah Palin as Shakespeare


On Sunday, Sarah Palin's Twitter feed appealed to "peaceful Muslims" to speak out against a proposed Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from ground zero. While this might be troublesome to those who don't share her political perspective, what's particularly interesting is her choice of words.

In her first tweet, Palin didn't write "speak out"; she used another term -- "refudiate." A few minutes later, the Tweet was rewritten with "refudiate" -- which is not actually a word -- removed, replaced by "refute." While not correct, "refute" was a step up -- it can actually be found in the dictionary.

Another day, another malapropism, right? Nevermind that the Language Log notes another instance of Palin using the word recently (and science fiction writer John Sladke using it in 1984). The word caught someone's attention, because a few hours later Palin refused to refute "refudiate," she tweeted that she's just following in Shakespeare's footsteps.

"Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!

So is Sarah Palin like Shakespeare? According to the I Write Like tool, Palin's 2008 speech to the Republication National Convention, in which she said, "I was just your average hockey mom," is like Dan Brown. Her keynote speech at the inaugural Tea Party Convention in February 2010 reads like -- wait for it -- Cory Doctorow.

But those are speeches, which of course read a little differently than what appears on the page. Could Sarah Palin's book "Going Rogue" be written like Shakespeare?

Alas, alack: no. The first several hundred words of Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue" read like H.P. Lovecraft. And she didn't mention Cthulhu once.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Sarah Palin in May 2010, speaking at the Susan B. Anthony List "Celebration of Life" breakfast. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

School district pulls dictionaries for 'oral sex'

dictionaryMenifeeMerriam-Websteroral sexRiverside


Menifee school district in Riverside County has removed the 10th edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary from all school shelves after a parent complained about a student running across "oral sex" in its pages. The Press-Enterprise reports:

School officials will review the dictionary to decide if it should be permanently banned because of the "sexually graphic" entry, said district spokeswoman Betti Cadmus.

The move did not sit well with everyone. One parent told the paper that it is incumbent upon parents to be able to answer children's questions in a way that's age-appropriate. A member of the school board suggested it should be up to the board, not individual parents, to set policy.

The online version of Merriam-Webster's dictionary includes a definition for "oral sex." It reads:

Main Entry: oral sex
Function: noun
Date: 1973

: oral stimulation of the genitals : cunnilingus, fellatio

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, told the Associated Press, "common sense seems to be lacking in this school."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Southernpixel via Flickr

Last-minute lit gift: The Unlimited Story Deck

Tait JohnsonUnlimited Story Deck


Whether you're stuck for a last-minute literary gift or for the next turn in your novel-in-progress, the Unlimited Story Deck may be the answer. Developed by Pennsylvania college student Tait Johnson, the Unlimited Story Deck is a card game that takes classic storytelling elements, like character and setting, and melds them with the interactivity of multiplayer games and the serendipity of Tarot. And he's made the game available online for free download with a Creative Commons license: just print the cards, cut and you're ready to wrap your last-minute gift.

"I have been writing stories since I was a child and with a serious intent since 2000," said Johnson, 29, now a creative-writing student at the University of Pittsburgh. He created the Unlimited Story Deck for a class on narrative and technology, but its scope is larger than the classroom. "I'm somewhat of an autodidact," he said. "In all the years I wasn't in school, I never stopped teaching myself and reading everything I could."

The volume and breadth of the storytelling elements in the deck are exhilarating. The 90 characters include a dandy/hipster/fop, an athlete, an artist, a doctor and a robot, a spy, a superhero, a troubled teen, a thief and an undead/zombie/mummy/ghoul. Of course -- you can't have a story game in this millennium without zombies.

But that's just the beginning. To build the stories, there are cards in four other categories: setting, events, objects and dynamics. There are lots of choices -- but like any story, the first choice you make begins to give it shape. And here, the shape -- and the fun -- comes from playing the game.

Any number of people can play. Seven cards are dealt, and the first player begins the story by telling it to the group -- one, the scribe, writes it all down. The cards serve as prompts for the story that the group tells, player by player. Unlike the absurdist storytelling game Exquisite Corpse -- in which people only know a little bit of the story when it's their turn to add to it -- the challenge here is to get multiple storytellers to create something together that makes sense yet has all the best parts of story: character, conflict, resolution.

Those familiar with Tarot will recognize some of the rules of play, which are fairly simple. A character can be given an attribute by playing one card on top of another. An inverted card means its opposite -- the marriage card, played upside-down, would mean divorce. Cards set perpendicularly mean ongoing action in order to keep track of complex stories. Dynamics cards set in a prominent place can set the mood or the genre of the story -- watch out, postmodernism is in there.

The narrative connections are made in the story as it's told -- and parallel narratives can be built out on different parts of the table. With seemingly endless possibilities, what's interesting is how the narrative choices will force the story to narrow and bend. Maybe you hope to play your celebration card, but someone has put the character in a swamp. Can you make it work?

In bringing the deck to classes to test its play, Johnson sometimes worried that it had too many choices, that it was too big. But he also noticed that the players sometimes moved in similar directions, as if responding to some burbling cultural meme. For example, when playing the character card genie/djin/leprechaun -- "This spirit may grant a wish or three, but watch out what you ask for!" -- people always chose the leprechaun. Maybe "djin" is too hard to pronounce, and genies aren't hip these days. Or maybe it's that tricky leprechauns seemed to have the most narrative potential.

As for future plans, Johnson hopes to find an artist to create "nonprescriptive" illustrations; he knows words aren't the only way we tell stories and, he said, "people like to look at pictures on cards." And he's considering splitting the deck -- making one that's kid-friendly (no sex or drugs), or one that doesn't include fantastical elements. Although he's noticed that it's the fantastical bits that open up players' imaginations the most. 

"It would be great to find a larger range of people for beta-testing, including already established authors," he said, "but with another semester coming up, moving forward on this might have to go on hold for a couple months." He's also hoping to get back to his novel, which he set aside to create the Unlimited Story Deck.

If he finds the novel-writing difficult, he can always return to his cards. Like any decent card deck, this one can be used for solitaire. A lone storyteller could use the cards as a prompt, or a challenge. Stuck on your plot line? Pick a card, any card.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images courtesy Tait Johnson

What is good writing, exactly?

Good Writing Awards
 Something strange is happening in England: the National Academy of Writing has launched the first Good Writing Awards. Aren't all the existing literary awards -- the Man Booker and the Pulitzer, the Nobel and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the National Book Awards and the Printz as well as countless others -- already awarding good writing?

Maybe so, but the Good Writing Awards are distinguished in two ways. First, the National Academy of Writing is soliciting nominations from the public on its website -- its members "want to hear the British people expressing their opinions," rather than asking a group of professionals to make the decisions (although professionals will be on the judging panel).  The other distinguishing characteristic is that it's not asking for whole books --  only for 100 to 1,000-word excerpts. For those of you who don't count words for a living, that's anywhere from a paragraph to about four pages. "The upper limit has been set," the website proclaims, "because good writing ought to be able to demonstrate its quality in less than 1,000 words."

In two categories -- instruction manuals and business/government writing -- this strategy will certainly generate interesting results.

But setting those aside, it seems to be an upside-down way of casting attention on close reading in longer works. Four pages of a play, nonfiction book or novel -- the other three categories in this competition -- could be much better than the work as a whole. Even a short story could begin with a brilliant paragraph and then devolve into a mass of cardboard characters in a plotless mess.

Isn't one of the things that makes a piece of writing resonate how it fits into the larger piece? Cordelia's arguments with her father might come off as whiny if you didn't realize what was happening in "King Lear." Doesn't "...and yes I said yes I will Yes" carry such resonance because it comes after more than 700 pages of "Ulysses," instead of somewhere in the middle?

Can the texture of writing be isolated from a work as a whole?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Tight, blotto, sotted, sloshed: in other words, DRUNK [Updated]

DrunkThe Definitive Drinkers Dictionary


Out this week, just in time for Octoberfest, is "Drunk: the Definitive Drinkers Dictionary." A sleek, gray hardcover of manageable size, the book contains no less than 2,964 synonyms for drunk. "The English language includes more synonyms for the word 'drunk' than for any other word," writes author Paul Dickson. He should know, being the Guinness World Records holder for cataloging synonyms such as in his cups, irrigated, beer-soaked and casters up

Several words and phrases for "drunk" come with literary pedigrees. Up in his hat appears in James Joyce's "Ulysses." Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" includes the colorful drunk as seven earls jumping fences. P.G. Wodehouse popularized blotto, which Edmund Wilson, in his 1927 "Lexicon on Prohibition," considered the drunkest of drunk. In "BUtterfield 8" by John O'Hara, one woman scandalizes another by saying she was stewed to the balls. Shakespeare had many drunk words, including fap and cashiered. Sloppo, a rare term, is used by a character in Stephen King's "The Stand." Carl Hiaasen's "Double Whammy" includes the phrase dog-sucking drunk.  And in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," Daisy Buchanan is found drunk as a monkey.

Jack London wrote a whole book on drinking -- 1913's "John Barleycorn: Mr. London's Graphic Story of Personal Experiences" -- in which he favored the word jingled for pleasantly buzzed.

And the legendary L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith makes an appearance with bosky; he noted in a 1981 column, Dickson explains:

...that his favorite word was bosky, meaning "wooded or sylvan in the sense of a 'bosky dell'"; he was quickly informed by a woman who wrote "Regency Romances" that, according to "The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang," bosky is defined as "dazed, or fuddled; mildly drunk" and that many of the "young nobles in Regencies are often a trifle bosky." Smith's reaction was to like it all the more and it stood as his favorite word.

Some terms, such as beer-goggled, come from the online Urban Dictionary, and seem more tasteless than quaint -- but the now-charming bosky may have been crass in its day. If you've got a drunk synonym of your own, suggest it to the publisher here.

The book, which includes long stretches of unadorned lists of synonyms -- from deformed to dipped in the wassail bowl, from Count Drunkula to cross-eyed -- is illustrated by Brian Rea in a series of sketches with an appropriately sideways sensibility. The image on the cover is of a plain bar stool, tipping over.

The stories give the dictionary its juice. Where else could we learn that 30 years after the term plastered entered the drunk lexicon, the Arizona Lath and Plaster Institute would protest the use of the term? "You don't say a person is 'shingled', 'painted' or 'landscaped,'" the institute's executive secretary told the New York Times in 1956. "Then why say he is 'plastered'?" But, as anyone with this book will be able to tell you, we do use painted to mean drunk too.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

[Updated 12:40 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled Carl Hiaasen's last name as Hiassen.]

Photo: Keel-hauled Octoberfest celebrants. Credit: Miguel Villagran / Getty Images

Argh, it's Talk Like a Pirate Day again, mateys

Talk Like a Pirate Day


It's rolled around once again, like a stray cannonball on the deck of a sailing ship. Sept. 19 is the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day, for no particular reason whatsoever.

Thank John "OI' Chumbucket" Bauer and Mark "Cap'n Slappy" Summers, the two ne'er-do-wells with pirattitude for starting the tradition, and writer Dave Barry for popularizing it seven years ago. Bauer and Summers have two books available from publishers and three others they've self-published, including the children's book "A Li'l Pirate's A-B-Seas."

Not all pirate talk is fit for kids. Suggested pirate pickup lines include "Have ya ever met a man with a real yardarm?" and "How'd you like to scrape the barnacles off of me rudder?" As for "booty" and "treasure chest"... well keep those double meanings to yourself, you swarthy knave.

Los Angeles is home to a bounty of pirate-related events today, including sexy pirate talk and a costume contest at the R Bar in Koreatown, a pirate-themed murder mystery geocache hunt, and a weekend's worth of pirates and steampunk at the Queen Mary. Shiver me timbers.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: from the Lake Forest 2008 Fourth of July Parade. Credit: tinyfroglet via Flickr


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