At the dictionary project, we have non-traditional author interviews on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month. In our author interviews, instead of responding to direct questions about their life or work, guest authors discuss their relationship to words and provide answers to dictionary project words bibliomanced specifically for them.
This Wednesday, we feature the words of writer, outdoor enthusiast, soon to be dad, and one-time builder of Grand Canyon trails Nathaniel Brodie. Enjoy!
1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:
The first that springs to mind has to do with a lack of a dictionary: when my wife and I were in the Peace Corps in a small shack in rural Paraguay we whittled away the hours playing Scrabble. But we lacked an English dictionary, so I had no way of calling out my wife on all the words I suspected her of inventing. There’s no way I’d have let her get away with something like “zwyk,” of course, but mostly they resembled actual words (like “sleck” or something), in which case, depending on an complex personal algorithm of belly-satiation, alcohol consumption, and game-board analysis, I’d let her get away with it, but not before adding it to a List of Words To Check Next Time We Get A Dictionary. I can’t remember if I ever got around to truthing that list; I like to think that by then I may have learned enough about life and marriage to know that whatever satisfaction I may have thought I’d have derived from exposing her lexiconic creations would in fact be a tired and petty victory.
2. What is your current favorite word?
Sylvan. Isn’t that nice?
3. What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?
The one I’ve found particularly irksome recently is “epic.” This has less to do with the word itself—which is a fine word, really—but the way it’s being faddishly and improperly used and abused. Maybe it’s the subculture I find myself in: climbers and kayakers and surfers and the like, but people are constantly describing things as “epic”—things that may have been especially harrowing, or exciting, or in some manner intense, but which to my admittedly curmudgeonly mind do not exactly resemble Gilgameshian acts of heroic valor. Really, though: the existence of two feet of fresh powder does not automatically entail an “epic” day of skiing, especially if the narrative of that day will later be delivered using slang in which the phrase “shredding the gnar-gnar” or “pow-pow” could possibly be employed and understood.
4. Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:
most (mōst), adj. [compar. MORE (môr, mōr)], [ME. < AS. Mast, maest, used as superl. of micel, big (cf. MUCH); akin to Goth. Maists; for base see MORE], 1. greatest in amount, quantity, or degree: used as the superlative of much. 2. greatest in number: used as the superlative of many. 3. in the greatest number of instances: as, most flame is fleeting. n. 1. the greatest amount, quantity, or degree: as, he took most of the credit. 2. [construed as pl.] a) the greatest number (of persons or things): as, most of us are going. b) the greatest number of persons. adv. 1. [compar. MORE], in or to the greatest degree or extent: used with many adjectives and adverbs (regularly with those of three or more syllables) to form the superlative degree: as, most horrible, most quickly. 2. very (often preceded by a): as, a most beautiful morning. 3. [for almost], [Colloq.], almost; nearly.
An ugly word, reeking of selfishness and possessiveness, gluttony and greed. But all is context, I suppose; it depends on the adverb: could be “the most beautiful ____,” which is a bit exclusive, but not all bad. Regardless, I generally regard superlatives as either lazy or simply dull tools of the trade. Yes, we need to be able to say “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored the most points in the history of the NBA” (and believe me, I find myself saying that a lot), but there’s not much zest to these type of lines. Same goes for its colloquial use (“Most of the time…”)—just kind of a boring word. But that’s okay—oftentimes boring is far preferable to flashy. Whatever. Moving on…
eye·wink·er (ˈī-ˌwiŋkər) n. 1. an eyelash. 2. any foreign particle in the eye that causes blinking.
I hate that. Hate the contortions of trying to flush my eye out under the faucet; hate the way the eye becomes bloodshot and bleary; hate the irritating and painful hours of blinking and stifled rubbing. And yet every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of how blessed I am to be of good health; the occasional tweaked back or broken wrist or, yes, “foreign particle” in the eye reminds me of how different and difficult the world could be (and, for billions of people, is). On a sidenote, an “eyewinker” person (n. 3. one who habitually winks, in a conspiratorial manner) can be either creepy or kind. Somewhat to my dismay, I can’t wink.
push (poosh), v.t. [ME. posshen; Early Fr. pousser; OFr. poulser; L. pulsare, to beat, freq. < pellere, pulsum, to beat, drive; cf. PULSE], 1. to thrust or press against (a thing) so as to move it away. 2. to move by exerting force in this way. 3. to thrust, shove, or drive up, down, in, out, forward, etc. 4. to urge forward or on; impel; press. 5. to follow up vigorously, as a campaign, claim. etc. 6. to extend; expand: as, the Genoese pushed their trade to the Far East. 7. to press hard upon:as, he was pushed for time. 8. to urge or promote the use, sale, success, etc. of. v.i. 1. to press against a thing so as to move it. 2. to press or thrust forward vigorously. 3. to put forth great effort. 4. to advance against opposition. n. 1. a pushing; shove, thrust, etc. 2. a thing to be pushed in order to work a mechanism. 3. a vigorous effort. 4. an advance against opposition. 5. pressure of affairs or of circumstances. 6. an emergency. 7. [Colloq.], aggressiveness; enterprise; drive; force. 8. [Slang], a crowd or clique.
push off, [Colloq.], to set out; depart
push on, to proceed.
SYN.—push implies the exertion of force or pressure by a person or thing in contact with the object to be moved ahead, aside, etc. (to push a baby carriage); shove implies a pushing of something so as to force it to slide along a surface, or it suggests roughness in pushing (shove the box in a corner); to thrust is to push with sudden, often violent force, sometimes so as to penetrate something (he thrust the knife into his victim’s back); propel implies a driving forward by a force that imparts motion (the wind propelled the sailboat).—ANT. Pull, draw.
The ancient Greeks had a lot of things going for them, but I’m particularly thankful for all the time they put into coming up with stories of ingenious punishments for sinners in the land of Hades: Tantalus and the Danaides and ol’ Sisyphus, who had to push a boulder up a steep hill until, almost at the peak, it rolled over him and down to the bottom, whereupon he had to start over, with the same results, for all of eternity. Man, that’s a good one.
ax·is (ˈaksis), n. [pl. AXES (-sez)], [L., axle, axis] 1. an imaginary or real straight line on which an object supposedly or actually rotates: as, the axis of a planet. 2. A straight line around which the parts of a thing, system, etc. are regularly arranged: as, the axis of a picture. 3. A main line of motion, development, etc. 4. an alignment between countries, groups, etc. for promoting their purposes: now usually a derogatory term. 5. in aeronautics, any of three straight lines, the first running through the center of the fuselage length-wise, the second at right angles to this and parallel to the horizontal airfoils, and the third perpendicular to the first two at their point of intersection. 6. in anatomy, a) the second cervical vertebra. b) any of several axial parts, especially the spinal column. 7. in botany, a) the main stem of a plant. b) the central system of a cluster. 8. in geometry, a) a straight line through the center of a plane figure or solid, especially one around which the parts are symmetrically arranged. b) a straight line for measurement or reference, as in a graph: see also abscissa, ordinate. 9. in optics, a) the straight line through the centers of both surfaces of a lens (optic axis). b) a straight line from the object of vision to the fovea of the eye (visual axis). Abbreviated ax.
I like the idea of an axis, and for a long time I believed fervently in all the corresponding (and comforting) notions of balance and symmetry, of yin and yang, good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell, synchronicity and rhythm. But not so much anymore—the thorough debunking of the notion of a mechanistic universe has really resonated with me, as have, for reasons I can’t yet put into words but have something to do with mystery and complexity and The Ineffable, theories of chaos and endemic disturbance and unending, dynamic change. Who wants to live in a fixed, clockwork universe? Not me.
mi·ni·um (ˈminēəm), n. [L.; of Iberian origin; cf. Basque arminea], 1. vermillion (the color) 2. red oxide of lead, Pb3O4: also called red lead.
Nice: the Vermillion Cliffs in Northern Arizona is one of my favorite landscapes in the world and I had no idea there was such a word to describe the rusty slopes, so thanks, Lisa. (Of course, this also brings me to a familiar writer’s quandary: should I use a word that the vast majority of the population would need a dictionary to understand and which thus puts me at risk of being labeled pretentious? My usual guide is that it depends on the word: in this case “minium” is good, but not that good.) Also: let’s take a moment to admire the “-ium” and lament the American “aluminum,” as opposed to British “aluminium,” this latter case allowing us to etymologically link it to other metallic minerals. But I also like “grey” as opposed to “gray,” and admire the Old-English instances of ending-with-an-e (“centre” instead of “center”), so I’m not exactly a reliable judge.
Nathaniel Brodie lives in Corvallis, Oregon. He writes, and gardens, and posts an occasional blog post about his imminent fatherhood at A Pregnant Husband.