On reading the Canadian Oxford dictionary: the letters P through S
As part of an occasional series, guest blogger Nikki Love (Exit Sideways) talks us through her ongoing project to read every word in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (A.K.A “The Behemoth”) in under a year.
The words begin to blur at the edges so I shut the dictionary for a night of rest before beginning a new day of breakfast-work-gym-work-supper-dictionary reading-sleep. I have become somewhat of a slave to my progress through The Behemoth, addicted to the pursuit of success. For too long I have been on the loser’s side of the challenge – perpetually behind – a trend that began on the very first day and continued every single day that followed; that is, until the 310th day. With just 8 weeks left in the challenge, I had finally pulled even and crossed the divide.
For the first time victory seems possible.
It must be some form of pertinacious insanity that kept me reading for just 2 months shy of an entire year when I didn’t even fully believe, myself, that I could succeed. It’s probably that same insanity that makes me feel proud right now of this small victory that really isn’t the victory of winning, but is, rather, the victory of not losing. There is a difference between the two, trust me, and while that difference is subtle, it’s very real.
Now, my breaking even also came hand in hand with another small victory, which was finishing the “S” section. It comes as a victory because “S” has the most words, comprising an impressive 222 pages of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary’s 1,815 pages. The end is truly in sight and, more incredibly, I’m on pace to cross the finish line a winner. Of course this isn’t just about winning the proverbial race, it’s about the words. It has always been about the words. So let’s get into it.
One of my favourite words is Pendragon, “an ancient British or Welsh prince.” It’s not the definition that I like but the word itself: pendragon. If only it meant a clever wordsmith blasting literature from their pen like an ink-spewing dragon – a title fitting for only the boldest and best of writers. Unfortunately, that is not the case. A wasted opportunity, I’d say, similar to the use of paper tiger, which is “an apparently threatening, but ineffectual person or thing.” Again, this could have been a writer with a ferocious wit, unafraid to put to paper words that carry a sharp bite. Nevertheless, I do also appreciate the term paper tiger for what it is: a better way to avoid the cliché of one’s bark being worse than one’s bite.
I, myself, am not a scholarly or literary writer. I’m more of a simpleton, an everyman, a purveyor of the lowbrow. But I still appreciate those sesquipedalian words, that is, words like sesquipedalian meaning “long, polysyllabic.” Or peregrinate meaning “travel; journey, especially extensively or at leisure.” Or pusillanimous for “lacking courage; timid.” Or even rapacious for “greedy, grasping, extortionate.”
Perhaps one of the best words as of late is steatopygous. Coming across it, I’m sure, was the universe’s way of reaching out to say ever so gently, “Put the dictionary down. It’s time to hit the gym.” The word is defined as “having an excess of fat on the buttocks.” See? Is that not the nicest way of saying a person has a fluff butt?
I have also now gotten the gym worked into my regular routine.
As for the lowbrow
Most of the words that work themselves into my vocabulary are lowbrow words because they’re usually fun, simple, and inclusive. Using the more complex words might make me sound smarter, but doesn’t typically help me communicate since most people don’t have that intellectually demanding of a vocabulary.
For example, the word propeller-head. I didn’t know that was a thing or that it meant “a computer geek, a nerd,” but it’s simple enough to remember and is an interesting definition that is not pretentious or academic in any way. Similarly, ratbag is fairly bang-on, meaning “an unpleasant or disgusting person.” Again, not an insult I have ever heard, but it makes sense. If someone called you a ratbag, you’d intrinsically know what they meant; no one is going to think it’s some term of endearment.
Another favourite is piffle, meaning “nonsense, empty speech” as well as shemozzle, for “a brawl or commotion” in the first sense and “a muddle” in the second sense. Both words sound like what they are to an extent and they’re fun to say. Up next is sleeping policeman and that is “a speedbump.” Sure, it’s just a synonym, but it’s clever. There’s also snarf, which means “eat or drink greedily” and brings up a picture of pigs rooting in the slop trough snarfing up food. I love it when the definition matches the word so perfectly.
A reflection of ourselves
The dictionary can also be a bit of a roller coaster, taking me from slang terminology through to literary terminology, from notable people to notorious people, from the heights of human accomplishment to the lows of human fault. One of the more noteworthy things I have learned through reading the dictionary is that we are the ones who develop our language and it’s the language we use that shapes our society. Sometimes I get offended reading the dictionary and I have to remind myself that it’s not the dictionary’s fault. The words on these pages are a reflection of ourselves. Words are not static – they come and go, otherwise we would all still be saying, “doth”, and “thenceforth”, and “therewith”, and I don’t think shit-eating would be in the dictionary. But it is.
It might be easy to think that words simply just exist and not acknowledge our own individual role in contributing to their existence or how they are used or even what they mean. However, in reading the dictionary, patterns have emerged. Nearly everything to do with metaphysics is supposed; whereas most biblical entries are not. Compare clairvoyance, meaning “the supposed faculty of perceiving things or events in the future or beyond normal sensory contact” with promised land, meaning “the land promised to Abraham and his descendants by God.” It’s a reflection of what we believe, maybe not all of us, but of society as a whole.
Similarly, we have the timeless battle between men and women’s sexuality. A man is a stud, defined as “a man thought to be very active sexually or regarded as a good sexual partner.” Now compare this with the words for women:
Strumpet – a prostitute or promiscuous woman
Bit of stuff – a woman regarded as an object of sexual desire
Slut – a promiscuous woman; a hussy
Slattern – a promiscuous woman; a slut. A prostitute or promiscuous woman
Skirt – a woman regarded as an object of sexual desire
Scrubber – a sexually promiscuous woman
Scarlett woman – a notoriously promiscuous woman
These are just some from the “S” section. I have gone through 18 other letters exactly like this.
It’s not surprising when you consider the term pudendum, which is a word for the genitals, especially of a woman, and it comes from a Latin word that means “be ashamed.”
Along with these words meant to shame women and the words that turn women into objects, are the words that reduce women to their appearance, as if that is the most important thing they have to offer. We have words like ravishing, meaning “extraordinarily beautiful” and it’s listed right after ravish which means “commit rape on.”
For the longest time, I felt like reading the dictionary was tedious when compared to other books because I didn’t think it told a story.
I was wrong.
It tells the story of ourselves – and it’s more discouraging than it should be.