A few thoughts … On the dictionary

By Sandy Compton
Reader Columnist

I am keeping my promise not to write about politics for a while; and it may be forever. It seems moot. We are stuck in a political and ideological quagmire, and it appears we will remain so for a while. It might be better to explore something we can agree on, if it can be found. 

’Tis a nice day, as I write; sparkling blue skies over a light frosting of snow. Fall has frozen right into winter after an extra-long summer. The tamaracks and maples seem somewhat confused, but they’ll get over it. Hopefully, we will too. 

Sometime before summer — maybe February — I began reading the booster seat edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. It’s a large book, with XLIV introductory pages (time to review your Roman numerals) plus 2,140 pages designated by Arabic numbers, including the appendix (this one is not a tube-shaped sac attached to an opening into the lower end of the large intestine in humans and some other mammals). And, FYI, Arabic numbers likely originated in India, and didn’t replace Roman numerals until about 1200 CE (Common Era). 

I’m going through the dictionary word by word, some of which I already know, many of which I don’t and a number of which I will never ever remember. Example: hypereutectic: adj. having the minor component present in a larger amount than in the eutectic composition of the same components. Clear as mud. 

And “hypereutectic” isn’t all that hard. Just look up “eutectic,” right? Maybe. Sometimes, I have to look up three words to have an idea of what the original might mean. And don’t get me started on math terms. Still, as a writer and lover of words — not all of them, you understand — I am enjoying my trip through the letters. 

The letter beginning the most words in English is “S.” In second place is “C.” Thanks to an eternity in “C,” and a summer that prevented diligent dictionary reading, I am working my way though “I” as winter descends. Ahead of me is an incredible selection of words beginning with “i-n.” And, right after “inwrought” is “Io,” a mythological maiden Zeus was enamored of and got turned into a cow by Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera, who was, oddly enough, also Zeus’s sister. 

Those Greek gods and goddesses were such nice people, always killing one another, fooling around with their siblings and their friends’ significant others, and making brash promises that turned out to be the height of ironic tragedy. Reminds me of television drama, and well it should. The formula — “and then everybody died” — still seems to work. Whoever said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” was referring to human behavior and they said it a long, long time ago. 

In fact, there is a new movie being touted by entertainment land entitled Violent Night — a riff on the name of a familiar Christmas hymn. The film seems to feature a homicidal Santa smashing things — and maybe people — with a sledgehammer. I didn’t pay attention to the trailer, and I will never pay to watch such bull-pucky (not in the dictionary). But, what a fine example it is of the holiday spirit as celebrated in America today. You know, unbridled commercialism. 

Oops. I might be getting too close to politics for comfort. Sorry. Back to the dictionary. 

Some of the most fascinating entries are about famous people, real and fictional — witness Io — with short descriptions of their lives. The entries often include the dates of birth and death of the real ones, by which one can infer — with a little simple arithmetic — how long these folks lived. Some of the biggest names didn’t make it far as I have, or half as far. Alexander the Great, for instance — overachiever that he was — was a goner at 33 (356-323 BCE [Before Common Era]). It seems he might have been poisoned. A lot of his fellow rulers (emperors, kings, queens, czars, dictators and despots) met similar fates, many of them while doling out the same. 

Were the mythologizers ascribing to the gods what they saw in human behavior or were the humans taking their lead from mythology? It’s hard to tell, like the chicken and the egg. But why does the chicken always end up guillotined and the egg smashed by a Santa with a sledgehammer? 

Personally, I like happy endings. Turning to the end of the dictionary (it’s not really cheating; the plot is nonexistent), I see that the second to the last word is zymurgy: n. the branch of chemistry that deals with the fermentation process, as in brewing. Zymurgy was discovered long before Hera turned Io into a heifer, and led to what I believe are happy discoveries — like beer and wine. 

Maybe we can agree on that.

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