It’s Saturday morning and the sun is streaming through the living room window. Ten o’clock has not yet come and already I feel lost, unsure what to do with this beautiful, glorious day I have, all of sudden, before me. I have just spent the past two hours with the dictionary – the last two hours I will ever spend with it in this way.
There are so many words
While my vocabulary has definitely grown as a result of my time with this project, I am also fully aware that most of the words didn’t stick with me. I kept two notebooks over the course of the past year which I can revisit to be reminded of those entries I deemed worthy enough to make note of but still forgot as I tried to cram thousands and thousands of others into my brain.
When I reflect on the sheer amount of words we have, I get amazed that we can even communicate properly. Language is so complex and also so incomplete. We have so many words that a single person can’t possibly know them all, yet there are still gaps in our lexis. If my language doesn’t have a word to describe something exactly, another language will and we don’t have a problem with stealing it. Where we are with the type of English spoken in Canada today is an evolution of language influenced and changed by the mingling and intertwining of different groups of people and their languages. We have German and French and Japanese and Latin words (among many others, of course) in our common lexis and to me, English doesn’t even seem like its own language anymore, having borrowed so many parts and so many words from elsewhere.
So here we are. There are so many words (in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary) and I’ve read them all.
I have published an A to Z list of my favourite entries, an extremely condensed list of all those that made it into my notebooks from the past year, and you can see them in the post titled Favourite Words A to Z.
From the 300,000 words, senses and definitions, from the 2,200 uniquely Canadian words and senses, from the 7,000 idiomatic expressions, from the 5,500 biographical entries, from the 5,600 place names… I have narrowed it down to just two entries to share with you.
These are my absolute favourite words:
Elegiac – having a pleasing quality of gentle and wistful mournfulness
As I have said many times before, words speak to me for different reasons and this one is a prime example. The word itself feels a little awkward, but the definition is soft and I love the way it describes this particular feeling. Like walking the quiet streets of your hometown so many years later or catching the smell of something specific that transports you to some distant place of your past, it encompasses this feeling I have of being so grateful for all the moments I have lived, while also lamenting that they are gone.
This definition is aimed primarily at works of art that elicit this feeling, but it really has a much wider appeal for me. It is also related to an elegy which is a song or poem of lamentation, especially for the dead. Again, this word isn’t necessarily limited to just these things. It’s a beautiful word and it should be used wherever this feeling exists.
Bedazzle – confuse by excess of brilliance
I love this definition. The word isn’t new to me in any way, however, I only ever considered it as another word for “stunning,” but it so much more. There are people that function on this other level and you can recognize their genius even if you can’t understand it and that’s what this word is. It’s not about glitz and glamour and beautiful people or magic tricks. It’s about the people who change the game, who make progress happen, who are so brilliant at whatever it is they do – be it music or athletics or science or business or whatever – that the rest of us can’t even comprehend it. You’ve got to have respect for that.
And now, having read the entire unabridged second edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, I don’t need to read anything ever again. Everything from here on out is just a remix. Right?
All About Those Brands
Coming across brand names and band names in the dictionary was interesting. Some you just had to wonder what they were thinking. Like the band Incubus. This is “a male demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women.” Not exactly what I’d want to name my band after. Even Yahoo is wondersome as it is “a coarse, brutish, uncivilized person” which comes from the name of an imaginary race from Gulliver’s Travels. Yahoo is a fun thing to shout on a rope swing, but when you’re naming yourself surely you should take into consideration other implications.
Nike, however, got it right. Nike is the goddess of victory.
But then there is Avalon and various businesses use this as part of their name. Avalon Events. Avalon Candles. Avalon This. Avalon That. What it means? The kingdom of the dead. (I hear those Avalon Event parties are killer.)
There’s also the band Passion Pit which is “a place where people engage in sexual activity.” There’s the indie rock band the Noisettes, which is “a small round piece of meat” in singular form. Then there’s Megadeath which is “the death of 1 million people, especially as a unit in estimating the casualties of war” of which the band Megadeth, drops the “a” from. And when you think about it, it’s not really as cool and metal as it seems, because it’s more trivializing to all the people who have died in war than it is cool.
Sure, it’s just a name… but what I’ve learned is that words and how we use them really do matter. It shapes our world.
Along with learning what words mean, I have picked up a lot of what I’ll call bonus knowledge. Here is a random smattering of things I have learned:
Bikini (as in the bathing suit) comes from the Island Bikini which was a site for testing nuclear weapons. A bikini is named after this from the supposed “explosive” effect. A calzone comes from an Italian word meaning “trouser leg.” Cilantro is fresh coriander. Purple used to be called purpuran. Flat leaved parsley has more flavour than curly parsley. Einstein was a pacifist. Karaoke is Japanese and means “empty orchestra.” A muskox is a goat-antelope. Nice originally came from Middle English meaning stupid, wanton via Old French for silly, simple. A crocus is also called Prairie Smoke. Rohypnol now turns blue when dissolved in a drink. Snoop comes from a Dutch word meaning “eat on the sly.” Tragedy comes from Greek tragōidia, apparently meaning “goat song.” And finally, utopia is Latin and literally means “no place.”
The World In Which We Live
It is not surprising that a utopia is only imaginary or hypothetical, that it is “no place.” I learned many, many things spending time with the dictionary. I expected to learn things, but I didn’t expect for the dictionary to tell me how horrible we are.
I am not naive. I alternate between pessimism and optimism. I believe we are all capable of goodness, but that greed – more than anything – will be our ruin. I see the potential for a peaceful, happy world, but I see it as a mirage because you can’t have true anarchy. The world will never survive on principles of goodness or morality or ethics. Someone will always ruin it.
You see, the dictionary has many entries for people who have done such amazing things. People like Terry Fox and Harriet Tubman and Albert Einstein. However, it is also filled with many more things that don’t speak to the greatness we are capable of, but rather to the malevolence that seems inescapable. Like the entry for Giordano Bruno who was burnt at the stake for believing in an infinite universe with many worlds. Or Charlotte Corday who assassinated the revolutionary leader Marat in his bath and was subsequently guillotined. Or William Tyndale who was strangled and burnt at the stake for translating the Bible.
While there are sloughs of names in the dictionary for people who have been killed or executed throughout history, we don’t have to focus on individuals to get a sense of humanity. Let’s look to the Children’s Crusade, when tens of thousands of kids were organized for a crusade to the Holy Land, except that most of them didn’t make it, instead being sold into slavery.
There were eight more Crusades. There was also the Thirteen Years’ War, the Eighty Years’ War, the Nine Year’s War, the Seven Year’s War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Hundred Year’s War. There were civil wars, wars of revolution, rebellion wars, and independence wars. There was the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Napoleonic wars, the Wars of the Roses, two World Wars – and this is only a few of the wars that this world has suffered.
We have always been fighting each other.
So much so, that we have terms like cannon fodder, “people, esp. soldiers regarded merely as material to be expended in war” and pogrom, “an organized massacre, originally esp. of Jews in Russia; an organized, officially tolerated attack on any community or group” and war of attrition, “a prolonged war (e.g. WWI) in which military strategy is based on the calculation that the enemy’s manpower and resources will be exhausted before one’s own as a result of numerous battles, usually involving massive losses on both sides.” Humans should not be treated as disposable. There’s something very wrong with all of this.
But let’s not stop there. We’re also the ones who created the caltrop, “an iron ball with 4 spikes placed so one is always facing up, used to impede cavalry horses.” We created the cluster bomb, “an anti-personnel bomb spraying smaller bombs or shrapnel when detonated.” We created germ warfare, “the systematic spreading of micro-organisms to cause disease in an enemy population.” We created Agent Orange, “a highly poisonous herbicide used as a defoliant, esp. by US forces during the Vietnam War.” We also created nuclear weapons, machine guns, cigarettes, gas chambers, the electric chair, Sarin Gas – it’s almost astonishing all the things we have come up with to kill ourselves.
Of course, absence can also be deadly. Imagine you are dying and someone has the cure but won’t give it to you. That’s not too far off the definition of an orphan drug, “a drug that is useful but is not commercially viable for the pharmaceutical company producing it unless it is granted tax credits and other special status.” Essentially meaning you’re going to die because they can’t profit off saving your life in the worst case or meaning you will remain sick or hurt or disabled when you could be healthy.
And remember, even the great moments and accomplishments of mankind are mired with stories of hardship and brutality. Terry Fox had cancer; Harriet Tubman was born into slavery; and, Albert Einstein was barred from holding an official university teaching position in Germany for being Jewish in the lead up to WWII.
These entries tell a story of the world we live in based on what has happened. However, it does not speak so much to the relationship of language to society. So please, let me indulge you just a little bit further.
The Language We Use
The hardest thing I had to wrap my head around was that the dictionary doesn’t decide who we are, instead it shows us who we are. It does not have an obligation to shield us from the harsh language we use against ourselves and so there is a plethora of entries for derogatory terms and malicious words. The dictionary does not decide what words mean. We do that in how we use them. The dictionary simply defines the meaning that we ourselves have created.
What I found, based solely on the words compiled in the dictionary, is the level of sexism that is apparent in society. I will be the first to admit that everyone is influenced by their own idiosyncrasies, and because I am a woman who experiences the inequalities of my gender, I am more sensitive to gender issues. I am more likely to see what may not be apparent to others in regards to the severe disjunct between how men and women are seen and treated and the words used to perpetuate this.
There are a handful of terms used for men, specifically, that are derogatory. Terms like dick, “a stupid, annoying boy or man” and prick, “an objectionable man.” These types of words were few. Terms for men mostly consisted of entries like Casanova, “a man notorious for seducing women” and hunk, “a sexually attractive, well built, and ruggedly handsome man.”
There is also this entry for Old man, “an affectionate form of address to a boy or man.”
Yet, when we begin to talk about women, everything changes. An Old woman is a derogatory term for a wife, mother, or girlfriend in the first sense and a fussy or timid man in the second sense. Over the course of the entire dictionary challenge, I kept note of the words used to describe women and nearly all of them are defined in one of the following ways:
- A woman regarded as a means of sexual gratification; women considered sexually
- A very sexually attractive woman
- A malicious or spiteful woman; a quarrelsome woman
- A woman regarded as unattractive, sleazy, sexually promiscuous, or immoral
- A prostitute or promiscuous woman; a woman considered to have an overly sexual image
- A woman, esp. an older one, thought unlikely to marry
- An ugly or malevolent woman; a dominant or aggressive woman
- A woman having or affecting scholarly or literary interests
This is what women are reduced to through our language. There is only one word for a woman “having or affecting scholarly or literary interests.” That term is blue stocking and it is still a derogatory term.
As a woman, these are all the things I supposedly am:
Adventuress, Ass, Babe, Bag, Baggage, Ball and Chain, Battle-axe, Besom, Bimbo, Bint, Bit of fluff/stuff, Bitch, Blue stocking, Bombshell, Boy toy, Broad, Bubblehead, Bunny, Cat, Crone, Crow, Crumpet, Cunt, Damaged goods, Dame, Ditzy, Diva, Dog, Doll, Dragon lady, Drab, Dumb blonde, Fancy lady, Feminazi, Floozie, Fluff, Fox, Frump, Fury, Gill, Gold digger, Grim alkin, Grrrl, Hag, Harlot, Harridan, Heifer, Hellcat, Ho, Hussy, Ice queen, Jade, Jailbait, Jezebel, Lolita, Looker, Lorelei, Man-eater, Minx, Nubile, Nympho, Nymphet, Old bat, Old lady, Old woman, Piece, Piece of ass, Plain, Plain Jane, Poontang, Pussy, Scarlet woman, Scrubber, Sex bomb, Sex kitten, She-devil, Shrew, Skank, Skirt, Slag, Slattern, Slut, Sole, Spinster, Strumpet, Stuff, Bit of Stuff, Tail, Tart, Tarty, Termagant, Totty, Tramp, Trollop, Trout, Vamp, Vixen, the Weaker sex, Whore, Witch, Young Lady.
According to the dictionary, every one of these terms has a derogatory or offensive definition.
We can go further and use language to learn even more about the patriarchal tendencies of society. Masculine means “manly, vigorous.” To help spell this out, the definition of vigour is “powerful operative force; intensity of effect or operation.” Now, on the other side, Feminine means “womanly, effeminate.” Effeminate means “characterized by or proceeding from weakness, delicacy, etc.”
We all know women are not weak, so why is femininity equated to womanliness to weakness? Virago once meant “a strong and courageous woman, esp. a warrior” but that is the archaic definition and now it means “a domineering, abusive, or ill-tempered woman.” This is where the evolution of our language and words shows us the mentality and constructs of our society. We have turned our strong women into something none of us wants to be.
Women are also much more sexualized than men and where men are celebrated for their inherent sexuality, women are meant to feel ashamed, yet again. Make an honest woman of is a phrase that means to “marry (esp. a pregnant woman)” Of easy virtue, is a phrase for a woman that means sexually promiscuous. On the shelf, is a phrase for women that are past the age of when they might be expected to marry. Honour is “chastity, esp. of a woman.”
Similarly, give oneself only applies to women and it means to “yield sexually.” Guess what? In consensual terms, women don’t yield sexually. They have sex.
But then again, we use language to try and reinforce the idea that women don’t have sex. They’re just sex objects. The fifth sense of the term possess is “have sexual intercourse with (esp. a woman)” The fifty-ninth sense of the term take is “have sexual intercourse with.” And while ravishing means “extraordinarily beautiful” the root word ravish means “commit rape on.”
The way in which women are regarded in society is not surprising when you consider that pudendum is a word for the genitals, particularly of a woman and it comes from a Latin word that means “be ashamed.”
Can you see the connection here? Can you hear the oppression lurking in everyday words? There is a massive preoccupation with women’s sexuality. Our language allows for women to be only a few things, though we are so much more, and when we are strong or smart we get labelled in all the wrong ways. I’m not suggesting that we need to bring our men down; I am suggesting that we need to bring our women up. We need to raise the bar. Change the standard.
People hear the word feminism and they have it all wrong. It is simply, “the advocacy of equality of the sexes, esp. through the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of women.” It’s about the liberation of women from oppressive tendencies in society. Is equality so much to ask?
Women are not possessions. Women are not objects. Women are not weak.
So remember that the words you use have very deep implications. They are not just words. They are a reflection of your beliefs. So whenever you speak or write, know what you’re really saying, what you’re conveying to the world and the ideas that you are perpetuating.
We may not write the definitions in ink or bind the book, but we are the ones who create the dictionary.
To continue reading, see The Dictionary Challenge Finale Part 2: A Swan Song