the official dictionary of unofficial english (grant barrett) love

the official dictionary of unofficial english (grant barrett)


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  • so often these collections about the quirkiness of the English language fall through.

    when my copy of Bryson's Mother Tongue arrived, I pounced upon it and then...ker-blah (not to mention sweeping generalisations that would make linguists' hair stand on end).

    In passing, it should be lolicon, not lolicom (a lollipop you can speak into?); 'm' is not possible word-finally in Japanese.

    May 26, 2009

  • I wanted to like this book much more than I actually did. Grant Barrett is a highly-respected lexicographer who maintains the excellent website, the double-tongued dictionary. From his bio on that site:

    "Grant Barrett, creator and editor of the Double-Tongued Dictionary, is an American lexicographer and editor of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English (May 2006, McGraw-Hill). He is also co-host of the language-related public radio show A Way With Words, broadcast nationwide via radio, streaming, and podcast. He also serves as vice president for communications and technology for the American Dialect Society, an academic organization that has been devoted to the study of English in North America since 1889. He currently does freelance lexicography for Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and for the Collins-brand dictionaries published by Cengage, formerly Thomson Heinle. In the past, he served as project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and edited the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (2004). On occasion, he contributes to the journal American Speech and writes for newspapers such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Malaysian Star. He also has a personal weblog called The Lexicographer's Rules."

    Content in "The Official Dictionary ..." has been culled from the double-tongued dictionary website, whose focus Barrett describes as follows:

    "The Double-Tongued Dictionary records undocumented or under-documented words from the fringes of English, with a focus on slang, jargon, and new words. This site strives to record terms and expressions that are absent from, or are poorly covered in, mainstream dictionaries."

    Here are my ratings:

    Coverage: 2

    Usability: 4

    Scholarship: 4

    Charm: 2

    Total: 12/20, for an overall 3-star rating. BUT SEE BELOW.

    Comments: My relatively low scores for coverage and charm need some explication. Paradoxically, the low score for "coverage" is actually a reflection, in this case, of the enormously broad scope of the dictionary. Candidate entries for the website, and for this book, were obtained by automated google-searching across the internet; the subsequent editing and filtering to decide what should be included in the dictionary presumably reflect Mr Barrett's judgement and personal preferences. I can hardly fault him for exercising editorial judgement, except that the result is, somehow, frustratingly unsatisfying. The net he casts is so wide, and the resulting selection so idiosyncratic, that the final result conveys a certain eccentricity, but not that much charm (despite Barrett's obvious enthusiasm and scholarship). I was left befuddled as to what the particular selection of entries in this dictionary is supposed to represent. Are they words that Barrett believes

    *are not yet in standard dictionaries, but ought to be?

    *are not yet in standard dictionaries, but are likely to be in future?

    *deserve broader attention (if so, why)?

    *merit inclusion, just because he found them neat?

    It's just not clear. Many of the entries don't strike me as meeting the first two criteria at all, and a word's 'charm' is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But consider these entries;

    "marbit", a marshmallow bit found in processed breakfast cereal;

    "godunk", a person who solicits free airplane trips (the only two citations date from 1939 and 1946);

    "gap out", a variant of "space out";

    "FLOHPA", an acronym used to denote the swing states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania during the 2004 election (all five citations date from 2004);

    "dub-dub", a restaurant server (possibly specific to the TGI Friday's restaurant chain)

    "ding-ding", Hong Kong term for a streetcar

    "Califunny", a jocular or derisive name for California

    "land of fruit and nuts", jocular or derogatory name for California

    "lolicom", a Lolita complex, the attraction of older men to young girls

    "rinse", new Zealand prison slang for GHB

    "Rummy's dummies", derisive term for the U.S. military,

    "unass", to dismount or disembark

    "wet", prison slang for a recreational drug made from marijuana, PCP, and formaldehyde

    "in the weeds", restaurant slang for the condition of a waiter who is completely swamped

    "yumptious", delicious - a portmanteau of 'yummy' and 'scrumptious'

    "vuzvuz", derogatory term applied by Sephardic jews to Ashkenazic jews.

    Do I need to explain why I find none of them even remotely interesting or clever? How about:

    weirdly uninteresting specificity, only of interest to a subset of waiters and felons;

    built-in obsolescence, sell-by date already in the past (FLOHPA, Rummy's dummies);

    terminal stupidity (Califunnia? CALIFUNNIA?);

    needed to be executed at birth (yumptious, unass);

    any combination of the above reasons.

    I hate to say it, but there is no obvious reason for this particular book to exist. I am forced to override my own brilliantly evenhanded scoring system and downgrade my rating to two stars. And that's being generous.

    This is not a yumptious book.

    March 30, 2009

  • goodreads review

    A confusing disappointment in which the words are uninspired and the selection criteria unclear. Mr Barrett has a distinct predilection for bicyclist and prison slang, as well as Asian English terms.

    February 3, 2009