Category Archives: Words

Colorful Victorian Slang

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWhen James Joyce began writing Ulysses in 1914, he was researching language. One of the works he consulted was J. Redding Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase that was published in 1909 by Routledge. A year earlier, Routledge had published a one-volume abridged edition of the seminal seven-volume Slang and Its Analogues by John Farmer and William Henley. In the introduction to a modern facsimile, John Simpson notes “[Ware’s Dictionary of Victorian Slang] is one of the most engaging and enjoyable English dictionaries you are likely to find… He includes [more than 4,000] words and phrases, and the core of his work covers vocabulary and expressions that he encountered during his life in and around the music halls, theaters and streets of London…  [This] results in a remarkable picture of how English was changing in the late nineteenth century.” Here are some interesting entries.

argol-bargol: to have a noisy quarrel

boodle: money

carriwitchet: a puzzling question

chivy duel: fight with knives

Coxey: a wild political leader

diffs: difficulties

Donnybrook: a riot

hinchinarfer: gruff-voice woman

knee-drill: hypocritical prayer

mops and brooms: drunk

plain as a pipe-stem: utterly plain

quite a dizzy: a very clever man

sham-abram: fake illness

three-quarter man: a bad employee

zeb: best

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For further reading: The Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase by J. Redding Ware

What is a Tom Swifty?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsMore than a century ago, Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of a book-packaging company, created the character of Tom Swift.  Stratemeyer wrote under the pseudonym of Victor Appleton. The very popular adventures of Tom Swift appeared in a series of books (40 volumes), published from 1910 to 1941. The protagonist, Tom Swift, is portrayed as a hero and scientific genius (modeled after famous inventors of the time — Thomas Edison and Henry Ford). In some ways, Swift was the early 20th-century version of Jimmy Newtron, or a Tesla for teens. Many of Swift’s inventions, like a fax machine,  hand-held movie camera and taser, predated the actual invention by several decades. In fact the word TASER is an acronym of “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.” The Tom Swift canon influenced many notable science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Kurzweil. Over the several decades, different writers have continued writing Tom Swift adventures for new generations of children. As of 2009, the Tom Swift book series has sold more than 30 million books (compare that to the Hardy Boys series, another successful Stratemeyer creation, that has sold more than 70 million books since 1927).

Another impact of the Tom Swift books was the rise of a clever word game. Stratemeyer, and the writers that followed him, tended to over-use adverbs to modify the verb “said.” For example, “Let’s run to the field,” said Tom excitedly or “Hand me the keys!” Tom said emphatically. A popular word game that began in the 1950’s was the adverbial pun, a type of Wellerism (introduced by Charles Dickens’s character Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers), to satirize Statemeyer’s overused sentence construction. This type of sentence became known as a “Tom Swifty.” For example, “I can’t find the box of oranges,” said Tom fruitlessly or “Put that knife down,” said Tom sharply. Below are some examples of Tom Swifties:

“My favorite authors are Slaughter and Hemingway,” Tom said frankly and earnestly.

The lemon is too sour, Tom said bitterly.

“Welcome to my tomb,” said Tom cryptically.

“I can’t find the oranges,” said Tom fruitlessly.

“Don’t you love sleeping outdoors,” Tom said intently.

“Let’s trap that sick bird,” Tom said illegally.

“I lost my trousers,” said Tom expansively.

“Don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes,” Tom said sheepishly.

“I just dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom crestfallenly.

“This tooth extraction could take forever,” said Tom with infinite wisdom.

“Watch what you’re doing with that paddle,” said Tom, awestruck.

“That doesn’t add up,” said Tom nonplussed.

“I can’t think of anything to write,” Tom said blankly.

“Elvis is dead,” said Tom expressly.

“I’ve eaten too much white sauce,” said Tom ruefully.

“This may be the worst case of dry rot I’ve ever seen,” said Tom flawlessly.

“They had to amputate them both at the ankles,” said Tom defeatedly.

“Hurry up and get to the back of the ship!” Tom said sternly.

“I love explosions,” Tom boomed.

“Happy Birthday,” Tom said presently.

“There’s room for one more,” Tom admitted.

“Walk this way,” Tom said stridently.

“Bingo,” Tom exclaimed winningly.

“I didn’t see the steamroller coming,” said Tom flatly.

“You ever seen one this big?” Tom bragged cockily.

“Where did all the carpet on the steps go?” asked Tom with a blank stare.

“I have no flowers,” Tom said lackadaisically.

“I know not which groceries to purchase,” Tom said listlessly.

“It’s a unit of electric current,” said Tom amply.

“I’d like my money back, and some,” said Tom with interest.

“I have a delivery of shoes for the prisoners,” said Tom consolingly.

“This pizza place is great!” Tom exclaimed saucily.

“Let’s gather up the rope,” said Tom coyly.

“Who left the toilet seat down?” Tom asked peevishly.

“Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily.

“I’m the butcher’s assistant,” Tom said cuttingly.

“I unclogged the drain with a vacuum cleaner,” said Tom succinctly.

“We just struck oil!” Tom gushingly.

“Now I can do some painting,” Tom said easily.

“It’s freezing,” Tom muttered icily.

“I love hot dogs,” said Tom with relish.

“My therapist told me I suffer from multiple personality disorder,” said Tom, being frank.

“Pardon my flatulence,” said Tom astutely.

“If you want me, I shall be in the attic,” Tom said, loftily

“We’re going to see Riverdance, and that’s final,” said Tom, flatly.

“Follow that group of ships!” Tom said fleetingly.

“How many lambs do you have on your farm?” Tom asked sheepishly.

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There Should Be A Word for That: Bibliorts

alex atkins bookshelf wordsPeople who read real books (you know the ones made of paper) use all sorts of things, other than bookmarks, to mark their place — random scraps of paper, ticket stubs, photos, postcards, notes, post-its, tissues, letters, etc. Lexicographer Paul Dickson believes these types of alternative bookmakers deserve their own name. He calls them bibliorts, derived from the Greek word biblio meaning “books” and orts, an old and rare term for “scraps.” Interestingly, some readers use various bibliorts to mark several places in a book. High school and college students, for example, are notorious for using dozens of colorized post-it notes to mark important passages in a famous novel that they are studying.

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For further reading: Words by Paul Dickson.

Classification of Book Collectors

alex atkins bookshelf booksJohn Hill Burton (1809-1881) was a passionate book collector, as well as a Scottish historian and economist. In one of his works, The Book-Hunter, published in 1862, Burton shares his appreciation for several terms that Jean-Joseph Rive, an 18th century librarian and bibliographer, had developed to classify book collectors. Burton wrote: “To afford the reader an opportunity of noting at a glance the appropriate learned terms applicable to the different sets of persons who meddle with books, I subjoin the following definitions, as rendered in d’Israeli’s Curiosities from the Chasse aux Bibliographes et Antiquaires mal advisés of Jean-Joseph Rive:

A bibliognoste, from the Greek, is one knowing in title-pages and colophons, and in editions; the place and year when printed; the presses whence issued; and all the minutiae of a book.’

A bibliographe is a describer of books and other literary arrangements.

A bibliomane is an indiscriminate accumulator, who blunders faster than he buys, cock-brained and purse-heavy.

A bibliophile, the lover of books, is the only one in the class who appears to read them for his own pleasure.

A bibliotaphe buries his books, by keeping them under lock, or framing them in glass cases.

The accurate Peignot, after accepting of this classification with high admiration of its simplicity and exhaustiveness, is seized in his supplementary volume with a misgiving in the matter of the bibliotaphe, explaining that it ought to be translated as a grave of books, and that the proper technical expression for the performer referred to by Rive is bibliotapht. He adds to the nomenclature bibliolyte, as a destroyer of books; bibliologue, one who discourses about books; bibliotacte, a classifier of books; and bibliopée ‘l’art d’écrire ou de composer des livres’, or, as the unlearned would say, the function of an author.” [more accurately, the translation from the French means: “the art of writing or composing books.”]

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How Famous Tech Products Got Their Names

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAround 38o, Plato wrote in book 2 of the Republic: “…the creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.” Over the centuries that sentence has morphed into the modern proverb that everyone recognizes: necessity is the mother of all invention. And in the competitive world of tech products, that proverb is something that all engineers and product designers fully embrace. But designing and building a great tech product is only half the battle — that product also requires a great name. In this endeavor, once again, necessity of a cool, catchy product name is the mother of all creation. Many times, the names were developed in-house at no cost; otherwise fees for a product name can command up to $1 million or more. Here are how some famous tech products got their names.

iPod: In 2001, Apple hired freelance copywriter Vinnie Chieco to come up with a name for their MP3 player, which they described as a hub to other gadgets. He brainstormed all kinds of ideas involving hubs, but came back to the central element in Stanley Kubrick’s dazzling, groundbreaking film, 2001: A Space Odyssey — a spaceship. In particular, Chieco recalled one of the most famous lines in the movie. In the 1968 film, as the spacecraft, Discovery One, is headed to a secret mission to Jupiter, the computer that runs the ship, the HAL 9000, begins killing off the ship’s crew. The lead astronaut, David Bowman, climbs into a space pod and leaves the ship to retrieve the body of his colleague, Frank Poole. As he returns to Discovery One, Bowman instructs HAL to open the ship’s outer door: “Open the pod bay door, HAL.” And HAL devilishly responds, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that… This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” So we can thank Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke for coming up with the concept or space pods. Finally, Chieco added the “i” to the beginning of the name to link it phonetically with the pre-existing iMac computer.

Blackberry: In 2001, Research in Motion hired the naming company, Lexicon Branding, to develop the name for it wireless email device. Someone on the team noted that the small keys looked like seeds. So they explored names of fruits with seeds. They found that blackberry (the black describes the color of the device) tested positively among consumers.

Twitter: In 2006, cofounder Biz Stone remarked that users sending short communications (initially 140 characters) to one another was like birds chirping to one another: “Short [trivial] bursts of communication… everyone is chirping, having a good time.” That led to “twttr” that morphed to “twitter.” The word twitter was used as early as 1374 by Chaucer to refer to the sound of a bird chirping. There is another form of twitter, that emerged in 1530, that is the form of the verb twit, which means to tattle-tale; thus someone who tattle-tales, is a twitter.

Kindle: In 2005, Amazon hired Michael Cronan, a Bay Area graphic designer, to name their e-reader. His wife and partner, Karen Hibm, elaborates: “Michael came up with the name through our usual practice of exploring the depths of what the potential for the new product and product line could be and how the company wanted to present it. Jeff [Bezos, the CEO] wanted to talk about the future of reading, but in a small, not braggadocio way. We didn’t want it to be ‘techie’ or trite, and we wanted it to be memorable, and meaningful in many ways of expression, from ‘I love curling up with my Kindle to read a new book’ to ‘When I’m stuck in the airport or on line, I can Kindle my newspaper, favorite blogs or half a dozen books I’m reading.’” The word Kindle, derived from the Scandinavian word, kynda, means “to set fire to,” or derived from the Middle English word, kindel, which means “to give brith, or bring forth.” Hibma continues: “I verified that it had deep roots in literature. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others and it becomes the property of all.”

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Words for Superior Persons

alex atkins bookshelf wordsPeter Bowler is the quintessential word lover. He is the author of the successful logophile cult classics The Superior Person’s Book of Words (Volumes 1-3) that sold more than one million copies. The goal of these books were to provide readers with “constantly edifying and unfailingly highfalutin words that are guaranteed to provide the quotidian man on the street with new and better verbal weapons.” Here are some gems from those lexical treasure chests:

aasvogel: a vulture

battology: the constant repetition of the same words or phrases in writing or speech; for example: “like,” “literally,” “believe me”

dandiprat: a silly child

doxy: a prostitute; or a belief or religious doctrine [now that’s what you call a paradox!]

farraginous: having the characteristics of a mixture or hodgepodge

fopdoddle: an insignificant fool

jobation:  a lengthy, tedious scolding

opsimath: one who learns late in life

pilgarlic: a bald-headed man

Qhythsontyd: an obsolete form of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter

slubberdegullion: a dirty, wretched slob

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For further reading: The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words by Peter Bowler

The Bar that Will Literally Kick You Out for Kardashianism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf a civilization is judged by its culture — the books we read, the movies and shows we watch, etc. — and some future historian discovers episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (KUWTK) then I think that the assessment will not be very favorable. God help us! Some television critics have suggested that vapid shows like KUWTK have led to the dumbing down of America. The show, featuring the antics of the Kardashian clan, has even contributed a new word to the English lexicon: Kardashianism. Urban Dictionary defines Kardashianism as “A chronic condition of extreme self-indulgence, characterized by self-involvement, absence of moral character, histrionic attention-seeking, inappropriate sexual activity, and overly large buttocks.” [That last attribute might be too cheeky.] To that definition we can add: constant, shameless promotion and mindless speaking, specifically the overuse of the word “literally.”

But one noble establishment in New York is drawing the line in the sand, bravely battling one aspect of Kardashianism that they find most offensive: the overuse of the word “literally” and its degradation of the English language. The Continental, a bar in the East Village, has posted a sign in the window that reads: “Sorry but if you say the word ‘literally’ inside Continental you have 5 minutes to finish your drink and then you must leave. If you actually start a sentence with ‘I literally’ you must leave immediately! This is the most overused, annoying word in the English language and we will not tolerate it. Stop Kardashianism now!” Kardashianites consider yourselves warned.

Let’s raise our glasses and toast the Continental and its noble efforts to stop Kardashiansim — literally!

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