Category Archives: author interviews

the dictionary project author interview: margaret kimball



This week, I’m so pleased to share with you an interview with author/illustrator extraordinaire Margaret Kimball. Margi’s work reflects her quick mind, her quick wit, and the ease with which she navigates/blurs/confronts the (often artificial) boundaries of written language and visual image. Enjoy!


1.   Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:



2.   What is your current favorite word?


3. What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?



4. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively and randomly for you:

padded cell, a cell, or room, lined with heavy, soft material for the confinement of violently deranged patients or prisoners.



bar·rier  (barēər)  n.  [ME. barrere;  OFr. barriere  <  barre; see BAR, n. 1.  originally, a fortress, stockade, etc. for defending an entrance or gate.  2.  a thing that prevents going ahead or approaching; obstruction, as a fence, wall, etc.  3.  anything that holds apart or separates: as, shyness was a barrier between them.  4.  a boundary or limitation.  5.  a customs gate on a country’s border.  6.  [sometimes B-], the part of the south solar ice sheet that extends into the sea.—SYN.  see obstacle.



pal·i·node  (pa-lə-ˌnōd),  n.  [MFR. palinod; LL. palinodia; Gr. palinoidia  <  palin, again  + oide, song: see ODE],  1.  an ode or poem written to retract something said in a previous poem; hence,  2.  a retraction.



United Nations,  an international organization formed January 2, 1942, by the nations opposed to the fascist coalition of Germany, Japan, Italy, and their satellites. The 26 nations that met to form the organization were: the United States, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China, Australia, Belgium, Canda, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, the Union of South Africa, and Yugoslavia; as original members joining the preceding nations in 1945 were Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, the Byelorussian S.S.R., Chile, Columbia, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the Ukrainian S.S.R., Uruguay, and Venezuela; by 1950, additional nations that had become members were Afghanistan, Burma, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Pakistan, Thailand, Sweden, and Yemen. The members were organized to promote world peace and security under a permanent charter at San Francisco in May and June, 1945, and since 1946 have had their headquarters in New York City: abbreviated UN, U.N.



cer·ti·fy  (sər-tə-ˌfī),  v.t. [CERTIFIED (-fid’), CERTIFYING], [ME. certifien; OFr. certifier; ML. certificare; see CERTIFICATE]  1.  to declare (a thing) true, accurate, certain, etc. by formal statement, often in writing; verify; attest; hence,  2.  to declare officially insane; send to an asylum or similar institution.  3.  to guarantee the quality or worth of; vouch for; as, the bank must certify your check.  4.  [Archaic], to assure; make certain.  v.i.   to testify (to).  –SYN.  see approve.




*these definitions were bibliomanced from Webster’s New World Edition: College Edition, copyright 1955.


Margaret Kimball lives and teaches in Boston, Massachusetts. She was a resident at Yaddo this summer and her work has recently appeared in Defunct, DIAGRAM and Copper Nickel. She’s currently figuring out how to spend next summer living in a tree house in Central America.


Filed under author interviews

the dictionary project author interview: amaranth borsuk


Today, I am pleased to share with you an author interview with the amazing Amaranth Borsuk. Amaranth, not the author but the word, refers to “a cosmopolitan genus of herbs. Approximately 60 species are recognized, with inflorescences and foliage ranging from purple and red to gold.” And if you haven’t seen Amaranth Borsuk’s book Between Page and Screen (a collaboration with programmer Brad Bouse), you should probably check it out right about now (click here). Please enjoy her interview below!




1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

When I was preparing to apply for jobs a few years ago, my friend Andrew and I did mock interviews for one another. He asked me what book I’d like to be stranded on an island with, and I drew a blank. I eventually came up with The Library of America edition of Stein’s work, but wasn’t satisfied with my own answer. His was awesome: the Oxford English Dictionary. I was terribly jealous that I hadn’t come up with it. I still love that answer, but the more I think about it, I’d rather be stranded with the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Word Roots. It’s my go-to book because more than etymologies, it shows you relationships among words (often unexpected) that share a common root, which is what really drives my fascination with language. It leaves a lot up to one’s imagination. It’s also much more portable than the OED.


2. What is your current favorite word?

Saddle. I love the way it implies motion while holding one in place. One might be saddled with a burden of some kind, but the saddle itself, on a horse, a bike, a shoe, provides a means of transport.

More than that, I love that saddle has a little sadness in it—perhaps it’s the melancholy of language that wants to be in motion, but that is being held back. The word has been on my mind because I’ve been spending some time with Stein’s “Yet Dish,” which includes this delightfully conflicted poem:

Tea Fulls.

Pit it pit it little saddle pear say.

In her typically punny way (typical for this long poem in parts, anyway, written during WWI while she was developing the style of Tender Buttons), Stein reminds us that tea is made with a beautiful tea-full: a petite, pitted little saddle percée (pierced, you could say pitted, with little holes through which the tea seeps). A tea strainer thus weeps tears through its little holes because it is a little sad: a saddle. Its immobility allows the motion of water through leaves to produce a comforting hot drink. Motion and stasis, beauty and sadness all wrapped up in a pun at once linguistic and visual. Those strainers that perch across the lip of a cup do look a bit like saddles.


3. What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

For me it’s cleave. Oh the tempting cleave, with its implications of both conjunction and rupture. Cleave and cleave!! Cleave is like a drug for me. After reading my first manuscript, my father said “You use the word cleave a lot.” That’s when I knew it had become insidious. I would never, or rarely, use it in conversation, yet it keeps creeping into my poems. I’m trying to kick it out.


4. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively at random for you:


stare  v.  gaze steadily nlong, steady look

taser: a geeky old lead toy: zing sans volt.


e·lon·gate  v.  lengthen  — e·lon·gat·ion n. 

get·alone: navel on, gentle nothing.

sting  v.  stung, sting·ing to hurt with a sting  cause or feel sharp pain  —   n.  1 a stinging, or pain from it  sharp part in some plants, bees, etc. that pricks: also sting·er

tings: tungs, ting·ings  1 to sing with a truth  2 fail or curse neap phase — n. 1 a singing, or main profit 2 harps in some arts that respect black pen tips: also ting·ers


through·out  adv., prep. in every part (of)

our·thought: verve parade; nifty prop


bawd·y  a. i·er, —i·est  lewd yet humorous  —bawd·i·ness

weary·idea·bits: you must heel, word —bad·sinews



Amaranth Borsuk is the author of Handiwork (Slope Editions, 2012), selected by Paul Hoover for the 2011 Slope Books Prize, the chapbook Tonal Saw (The Song Cave, 2010), and, with programmer Brad Bouse, of the book of augmented-reality poems Between Page and Screen (Siglio, 2012). Her creative work spans translation, performance, book arts, and electronic literature, and she collaborates with a number of authors, including Kate Durbin, Gabriela Jauregui, and Andy Fitch. She joins the faculty in the MFA in creative writing and poetics at the University of Washington, Bothell this fall.


*Amaranth’s words were bibliomanced from Webster’s New Pocket Dictionary (copyright 2000)

Leave a comment

Filed under author interviews

the dictionary project author interview: cheryl strayed

Today is the second Wednesday of July and time for an author interview at the dictionary project. I’m thrilled to share that today we have an interview with Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir WILD and the voice of “Dear Sugar” at The Rumpus. Her newest book Tiny Beautiful Things, released yesterday, culls together many of her “Dear Sugar” columns along with some new additions. I first became familiar with Cheryl’s writing when she was writing anonymously as the voice of Sugar. I was immediately captivated not only by her beautiful writing but by the compassion, sincerity, and strength of her voice. Cheryl’s voice is so needed in our world. Her writing wrestles the with big questions and does so with insightful, smart, beautifully-crafted language.  Please enjoy this sampling.


Photo Credit: Brian Lindstrom


1.   Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

“Look it up in the dictionary” was a common refrain in my childhood. It was what my mother said to me whenever I asked her what a particular word meant. I would sigh and pretend to be put out, but really I loved looking up words in the dictionary. I still do. When I was 12 or so I spent several weeks reading my family’s dictionary in search of antiquated words. When I found one I liked, I’d add it to a list I kept, along with its definition. This is how I learned words like prick-me-dainty, flibbertigibbet, and honeyfuggle. I’ve spent the subsequent years using them in conversation whenever I can.

2.   What is your current favorite word?

I think supercalifragilisticexpialidocious will always be my favorite word. There’s just so much joy in it. Favorite words have been on my mind a lot over this past year, during which I did the final edits of my two most recent books—WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS. In that process I got to see what my favorite words were because my editor, Robin Desser, pointed them out to me with her all-seeing editor’s pencil. In the first draft of WILD I used the word ache an awful lot. In TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS my overused word was heal. Funny how those two words are opposites in many ways and there they were in my two back-to-back books. We heal our aches. We ache to heal


3.  What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

Maiden. As in one’s “maiden name.” Whenever anyone asks me what my maiden name is I have an internal hissy fit. The string of assumptions that go along with the notion that women have “maiden” names makes me crazy—the primary one being that a woman married a man and took his name. I do not have a maiden name, but I do have a different name than the one I had when I was younger and that name change has nothing to do with my status as a so-called “maiden,” nor does it have to do with my husband. When I explain this to the various customer service people who dare to inquire about my maiden name they generally act as if I’m speaking Latin, but I persist anyway. It’s my small part for the advancement of humankind.


4.  Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:



pho·to·graph·ic  (fō-tə-ˈgra-fik),  adj.  1.  of or like a photograph or photography: as, his photographic writing.  2.  used in or made by photography, as equipment, records, etc. Abbreviated phot. photog. 

There has been too much photography in my life lately. Too many times when I’m standing there in front of the camera trying to figure out what the hell to do with my mouth. In my experience it’s the mouth that’s hardest to get right. One must hold it in a position that conveys intelligence and attractiveness, calm approachability as well as serious intensity. Usually I just give up and smile.


bar·ris·ter  (ˈber-ə-stər),  n.  [< bar  (court of justice)],  in England, a qualified member of the legal profession who presents and pleads cases in court; counselor-at-law: distinguished from solicitor: abbreviated barr., bar.—SYN. see lawyer.


I’ve never understood this word, so I tend to avoid it. Even reading this definition, I still feel unsure. Is a barrister an attorney? What’s a solicitor? When I hear the word barrister I picture a man in a white shirt with lots of ruffles at the front. It isn’t a good thing.



roup  (rüp),  n.  [prob.  < ME. roupen, to cry, shout  < ON., but akin to AS. hropan, G. rufen, to call],  1.  a poultry disease characterized by hoarseness and a catarrhal discharge from the eyes and nasal passages.  2.  hoarseness; huskiness.


Interesting that the roup is so close to the word croup—one is a respiratory disease in birds, the other in humans. My kids never had croup, I’m glad to say, but I always liked the sound of it. It’s a word I’m attracted to, you could say. It reminds me of the American pioneers. Did Laura Ingalls Wilder have croup? Did her family’s flock of chickens have roup? I had chickens as a teenager, mostly hens whom we called The Girls. They never got roup to my knowledge, but one of them nearly died after she got an egg stuck inside of her. My mother devised a homemade hen douche and douched her, thereby saving her life. True story.



stay  (stā),  v.i.  [STAYED (stād) or archaic STAID (stād), STAYING], [ME. staien; Anglo-Fr. estaier; OFr. ester; L. stare, to stand] 1.  to continue in the place or condition specified; remain; keep: as, stay at home, the weather stayed bad for three days, these clothes won’t stay white.  2.  to be located for a while, especially as a guest or resident; live, dwell, or reside (for the time specified).  3.  to stand still; stop; halt.  4.  to pause; tarry; wait; delay: as, stay a little before going on with your labors.  5.  [Colloq.], to keep up, as with another contestant in a race.  7.  [Archaic], to cease.  8. [Archaic], to make a stand, stand one’s ground.  9.  in poker, to remain in a hand by seeing, or meeting, a bet, ante, or raise.  v.t.  1.  to stop, halt, or check.  2.  to hinder, impede, restrain, or detain.  3.  to postpone or delay (legal action or proceedings).  4.  [Rare], to quell or allay (strike, etc.).  5.  to satisfy or appease for a time the pangs or cravings of (thirst, appetite, etc.).  6.  to remain through, during, for, or (with out)to the end of: as, stay the week (out).  7.  [Archaic], to await; wait for.  n.  1.  a)  a stopping or being stopped.  b) a stop, halt, check, or pause.  2.  a postponement or delay in legal action or proceedings: as, the main was given a stay of execution.  3.  a)  the action of remaining or continuing in a place for a time.  b)  time spent in a place: as, she had a long stay in the hospital.  4.  [Colloq.], staying power.  5.  [Archaic], a standstill.  6.  [Obs.], a)  a hindrance. b)  restraint or control.  c)  delay.


My favorite use of this word is the fifth definition: “to satisfy or appease for a time the pangs or cravings of….” I don’t use it nearly enough.



sift  (sift),  v.t.  [ME. siften; AS. siftan  <  sife, a sieve; askin to G. sichten; cf. SIEVE],  1.  to pass through a sieve so as to separate the course from the fine particles.  2.  to scatter (a pulverized substance) by or as by the use of a sieve.  3.  to inspect or examine with care, as by teasing or questioning; weigh (evidence, etc.).  4.  to separate; screen; distinguish: as, he sifted fact from fable.  v.i.  1.  to sift something.  2.  to pass through or as through a sieve.


The question I have is who sifts flour? Is it necessary or is it just another way of convincing ourselves we have more control than we do? I have wondered this often. The only time I’ve ever sifted flour is in the home economics classes I took in school, when I was required to follow specific steps and the tools were all laid out before me. Nothing bad has happened to me for not sifting my flour so far. No cakes have fallen. No bread ruined. I’ve taken my chances and it’s turned out okay. I’m lucky that way.



Cheryl Strayed is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the memoir WILD (Alfred A. Knopf), and the critically acclaimed novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin). She has been writing the “Dear Sugar” advice column for The Rumpus since March 11, 2010 and her latest book, Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage Books), is a collection of those columns.Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, The Missouri Review, Brain, Child, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.



Filed under author interviews

the dictionary project author interview: aisha sabatini sloan


It’s the fourth Wednesday of June and time for another author interview at the dictionary project. Enjoy the wit and words of Aisha Sabatini Sloan!




1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

When I went to Lisbon last year, I brought a very pretty, pink pocket dictionary for Portuguese. I never opened it. The only word I managed to remember the entire trip was “obrigada,” which means “thank you very much.” I couldn’t even say “hello.”  I love languages, and normally enjoy learning new words, so I can’t figure out what happened to me to prevent me from even trying. It makes me wonder about what they say, how your brain sort of shuts off to learning new languages after your late twenties. I am determined to overcome  this, though, especially if it means that I have to move overseas, or marry someone for whom English is not their first language.

2. What is your current favorite word?



3. What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

No. Although, this was my first word.


4. Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:

L, l  (el),  n.  [pl. L’s, l’s, Ls, ls (elz)],  1.  the twelfth letter of the English alphabet: from the Greek lambda, a borrowing from the Phoenician: see alphabet, table.  2.  the sound of L or l: in English, it is normally a voiced alveolar continuant formed by the tongue apex, IPA [l]; in many words, l  preceding f, k, m, and v is silent (e.g., half, balk, calm, and salve) ; in most varieties of American speech, final and preconsonantal l  (e.g., feel, field) has the cavity friction, and hence the sonority, associated with vowels.  3.  a type or impression for L or l.  4.  a symbol for the twelfth (or the eleventh if J is omitted) in a sequence or group.  adj.  1.  of L of l.  2.  twelfth (or eleventh if J is omitted) in a sequence or group.


“A voiced alveolar continuant formed by the tongue apex.” Lovely. I am having trouble thinking of a word that starts with ‘l’ that I don’t like. Lilt. Languid. Lyrical. Laughter. Lounge. Laura Linney. I think this is the letter that best describes how I’d like to spend the next several months of my life. Months? Years. The rest of my life. Don’t tell me about the word that starts with ‘l’ that means genocide right now I don’t want to hear it. OK, shoot. Lynch. There is no perfect letter.



aye  (ā),  adv.  [ME. ai. ay  <  ON. ei], [Archaic], always; ever.


Aye? Really? This word reminds me of my friend, Radhika, for some reason, who must have been speaking with a Minnesotan accent at some point. Also of pirates, who was I talking about pirates with recently? Paula. She was saying that there were female pirates who captained ships in drag. And then she started talking about scuba diving. She and her sister and some man put on their gear off the coast of, I think it was Venezuela, and just started walking into the ocean. They were up to their knees, their shoulders, then under water. It was bizarre for her because she said it was just like going on a hike. Except that they were swimming into canyons, moving along the contour of the mountains.



(Editor’s Note: For the word knot, I actually landed on the numerical labels for a  diagram for knot pictured below)

KNOTS  1.  figure-of-eight knot; 2.  overhand knot;  3.  thief knot;  4.  half hitch;  5.  stevedore’s knot;  6.  loop knot;  7.  harness hitch;  8.  reef knot;  9.  granny knot;  10.  bowline knot;  11.  bowline on a bight;  12.  bowline with a bight;  13.  prolonge knot;  14.  clove hitch; 15.  round turn and two half hitches  16.  running bowline;  17.  slide knot;  18.  slipknot;  19.  fisherman’s bend;  20.  cat’s paw;  21.  single Blackwall hitch;  22.  double Blackwall hitch;  23.  studding-sail tack bend;  24.  magnus hitch;  25.  sheepshank;  26.  half hitch over pin;  27.  rolling hitch;  28.  studding-sail halyard hitch;  29.  timber hitch;  30.  timber hitch and a half hitch;  31.  surgeon’s knot  32.  anchor knot;  33.  long splice;  34.  surgeon’s knot;  35.  sheet bend;  36.  trefoil knot;  37.  throat seizing.  38.  outside clinch;  39.  inside clinch;  40.  double sheet bend;  41.  Englishman’s tie;  42.  single carrick bend;  43.  double carrick bend;  44.  single bowknot;  45.  double bowknot.


Knots. It’s difficult for me to even think about this word without feeling all of my energy migrate to my stomach and my heart is now definitely beating faster. The only non-negative meaning of this word seems to be an “Englishman’s tie.” I want very badly to undo this word, disempower it somehow, go up to it on the street and loosen it, even it it’s pink, so everybody can breathe better. I am tempted to add a “g” to the beginning, and then to pronounce the “g,” make the word into “ganot” or “ganat” and then just pull the tension loose. I do not like this word at all.



py·ro·lig·ne·ous  (pī-rō-ˈlig-nē-əs),  adj.  [FR. pyroligneux  <  pyro- + L. lignum, wood],  1.  produced by the destructive distillation of wood.  2.  designating or of a reddish-brown liquid (pyroligenous acid), chiefly acetic acid and methyl alcohol, obtained by the destructive distillation of wood.  3.  designating or of methyl alcohol, especially when obtained from wood.


Pyroligneous! I went to get a massage recently, and was told that, I guess in terms of Chinese medicine, my insides were on fire. I have been out of balance, vis-a-vis the five elements. I need to find a way to get more wood to feed the fire and more water to keep it from burning out of control. I say this because pyroligneous is “produced by the destructive distillation of wood.” I don’t like the idea that I’m walking around, creating methyl alcohol just by living and breathing. But it makes a lot of sense, actually. I think it’s part of the reason that I need to leave Tucson.



twig  (twig),  n.  [ME. & AS. twigge; indirectly akin to G. zweig; IE. *dwi-gho  <  base  *dwou-, two (cf. TWO): prob. with reference to the forking of the twig], a small branch or shoot of a tree or shrub.


Twig. I just used this word metaphorically a few days ago, and felt a little uneasy afterward. Now what’s this about, “prob. with reference to the forking of the twig.” Is it just me, or is it kind of cute when a dictionary says “prob”? Do you ever think about the person writing these entries? Are we allowed to see the dictionary as having subjectivity, facial hair, pajamas, even a soul? There is an old man in a room somewhere, thinking about the best way to explain the etymology of the word twig. I have affection for this man. He is so detail oriented: listen to him talk about “a small branch or shoot of a tree or shrub.” Shrub seems like such an outdated form of vegetation. I think that, wherever he is, he wants us to feel curious and optimistic about the ways of the world.






Aisha Sabatini Sloan grew up in an apartment building five miles from the ocean. Because the blue condo at the end of the block with porthole style windows was built around the same time that she was born, she always assumed she was going to be given one of the apartments for free.





Leave a comment

Filed under author interviews

the dictionary project author interview: lorraine berry

It’s the second Wednesday of June so it’s time for a new author interview at  the dictionary project.  In our author interviews,  guest authors discuss their relationship to words and provide answers to dictionary project words bibliomanced specifically for them.

This week, travel with Lorraine Berry into the woods and across the forest floor, over to an Irish Pub, across the ocean to Sienna, Italy, into the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and back again!




1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

I’ve had moments of intense love affairs with the English language. When I was younger, I used to read the dictionary and try to memorize new words. As a junior in high school, we were forced, in Honors English, to learn thirty new words a week, and at first, I resented it, but since then, I’ve been so grateful for the practical usage I still get out of those words.

What really lit me on fire about English, however, was taking Latin. I abhorred Latin—the constant charts and tables in order to learn each new word were painful. But what I learned to treasure about Latin was that it made each English word I encountered a puzzle. I found myself wanting to know etymologies. Sometimes, it would be obvious to me because I would recognize the Latin root. But rooting around in the dictionary got me excited about knowing the history of a word: Greek or Latin or Anglo-Saxon? Middle English? Related to what? First used when? All of that word stuff was yummy. It filled up some part of my brain that didn’t know it had been empty.

When I teach, I encourage students to buy themselves the biggest dictionaries they can find, and I especially encourage them to understand where words come from. It’s another way of unlocking the puzzle of our human existence, I think.


2. What is your current favorite word?

I learned a new word just this past weekend. My partner Rob and I were sitting at one of our haunts—one of those faux Irish pubs in a hotel that we like in spite of the décor—because it’s quiet and it has a fireplace. We’ve made a ritual of my bringing essays to grade and him bringing a novel, and we sip Jameson’s as the day slips away.

This past weekend, however, I was between grading spates and had brought a novel of my own to read: Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases, and it happened: in the middle of a passage was a word I didn’t recognize: dysthymic. I guessed at its meaning from the context, and cursed the pub for not having a dictionary. (I suppose I could engage my own romanticized vision of the bard here and wonder why someplace that serves Irish spirits does not serve the Irish spirit and keep a fucking dictionary around.) Rob had technology at his fingertips, however, and looked up the word on his iPhone: dysthymia refers to chronic depression, and Englander had referred to his characters as dysthymics.

Jesus, did it seem appropriate. Sometimes, I think my entire thirties (I’m forty-nine now) were spent as the poster child dysthymic. The day we were having Saturday—cold and blustery and gunmetal gray—felt as if April, which had come in with Apollonian glory, had gotten stuck in some northern latitude doldrums—when you know that it should be spring outside, but honestly, a glance through the window leaves you wondering whether it’s November or March.

So, until this damn weather clears up, I’m going with dysthymic as my current favourite word.


3. What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

Has anyone else noticed that we go through cycles of overused, misused words? At one point in my teaching, students couldn’t get through a paragraph without inserting extraneous “basicallys” to their language. Now the word that makes me twitch is literally.

(I should say that, from a political standpoint, the political language of obfuscation and outright lie telling enrages me. But in sticking with the wording of the question, I’m toning down my response from rage to obnoxiousness.)

I’m not sure why the word “literally” has undergone a figurative blooming. It reminds of the way an invasive species can take down an eco-system. Directly across the road from where I live is a small gorge that, in years past, has been full of my favourite summer wildflower: chicory. Chicory is a shade of blue that, depending on the angle of the sun, may appear purple through gray, but mostly stays a shade a tad lighter than cornflowers.

A couple of years ago, wild parsnip (pastinaca sativa) appeared on the scene. The stalks are tall and the flowers resemble a Queen Anne’s Lace, except they’re baby-shit yellow and spiked out so that the flowers appear to be giant hands.

They are more than an eyesore. They contain a photosensitizing chemical that, should you brush the plant with your hands or body then expose your skin to sunlight, will cause burns and blisters. Removing the plant requires the wearing of a hazmat suit.

Notice I didn’t say “literally wearing a hazmat suit.” I’ve become allergic to the word. It is so insidious in my students’ speech that it causes me to involuntarily pull away, as if contact with the word may leave residue on my skin.


 4. Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:


dust  (dəst)  n.  [ME.; AS.; akin to ON. dust; IE. base dhus- (<dhewes; see DEER), to fly like dust, dust-colored, etc.; cf. DUN, DUSK],  1.  powdery earth or any powdered matter fine enough to be easily suspended in air.  2.  a cloud of such matter; hense,  3.  confusion; turmoil  4.  earth  5.  mortal remains disintegrated or thought of as disintegrating to earth or dust.  6.  a humble or lowly condition.  7.  anything worthless.  8.  [British], ashes, rubbish, etc.  9.  [Rare], a particle, gold deposits, hence,  12.  [Slang], money.  v.t.  1.  to sprinkle as by brushing, shaking, or wiping (often with off).  v.i.  1.  to remove dust, especially from furniture, floors, etc.  2.  to bathe in dust, said of a bird.  3.  to become dusty

bite the dust, to fall in battle, be defeated.

lick the dust,  1.  to fall in battle; be defeated.  2. to be servile; grovel

  make dust fly,  1. to act energetically.  2.  To move swiftly

shake the dust off of one’s feet, to leave in anger or contempt: Matt. 10:14.

throw dust in (someone’s eyes), to mislead or practice deception on (someone).


I found ashes once.

Human ashes, in a box, that had been washed up from their shallow burial ground by a series of storms. I didn’t open the box; I wanted the body inside to maintain its privacy, but I did make sure that they were reburied properly.

Dust and ashes, it seems to me, are our inevitable form. And while I know ashes are grittier than dust, I imagine myself blown across the universe when I’m dead.



tway·blade  (ˈtwāˌblād),  n.  [archaic tawy, two (ME. twei; see TWAIN; + blade],  1. a variety of orchid with two broad leaves and small, red-veined, yellow flowers.  2.  any of several orchids having two leaves springing from the roots.


I hike in the woods near every day. As far as I know, I’ve never seen twayblade, although I recognize the shape and color. The flower reminds me of Dutchmen’s Breeches, which appear to be a row of pants hanging on a line of washing. A couple of years ago, I encountered a plant that took me days to name. Like twayblade, it had two leaves coming up from the roots, and then two magenta petals with tiny pom-poms on the end of each petal. Its name? Gaywings. Gaywings and twayblades, I think, would make lovely partners on the forest floor.



mark  (mark),  n.  [ME. merke, marke; AS.  mearc, orig., boundary, hence boundary sign, hence sign, etc. (cf. MARCH, boundary); akin to G. mark, boundary, boundary stone, landmark, etc., marke, a token, mark; IE. base *mareg-, seen also in L. margo, an edge, border (cf. MARGIN); basic idea either “extending” or “visible boundary:],  1.  a visible trace or impression on a surface, as a line, dot, spot, stain, scratch, blemish, mar, bruise, dent, etc.; distinctive feature produced by drawing, coloring, stamping, etc.  2.  a sign, symbol, or indication; specially, a) a printed or written sign or stroke: as, punctuation marks. b) a brand, label, seal, or tag put on an article to show the owner, maker, etc.: as trade-mark.  c) a sign or indication of some quality, character, etc.: as, politeness and consideration for others are marks of a good upbringing. d) a letter or figure used in schools, etc. to show quality of work or behavior; grade; rating: as, a mark of B in history. e) a cross or other sign made on a document as a substitute for a signature by a person unable to write.  3.  a standard of quality, proficiency, propriety, etc.: as, this novel doesn’t come up to the mark.  4.  importance; distinction; eminence; as, a man of mark.  5.  impression; influence: as, good teachers leave their mark on their students.  6.  a visible object of known position, serving as a guide or point of reference: as, the tower was a mark for fliers.  7.  a line, dot, notch, etc. used to indicate position, as on a graduated scale.  8.  a) an object aimed at; target. b) an object desired or worked for; end; aim; goal.  9.  an observing; a taking notice; heed.  10.  [Archaic], a) a boundary, border, or borderland; march. b) among Germanic peoples in earlier times, land held or worked in common by a community.  11.  in nautical usage, a) one of the knots, bits of leather, or colored cloth placed at intervals on a sounding line to indicate depths in fathoms. b) the Plimsoll mark.  12.  in sports, a) the starting line of a race. b) the jack in the game of bowls.  v.t.  1.  to put or make a mark or marks on.  2.  to identify or designate by or as by a mark or marks: as, his abilities marked him for success.  3.  to trace, make, or produce by or as by marks; draw, write, etc.  4.  to show or indicate by a mark or marks.  5.  to show plainly; manifest; make clear or perceptible: as, her smile marked her happiness.  6.  to distinguish; set off; characterize: as, great scientific discoveries marked the 19th century.  7.  to observe; note; pay attention to; take notice of; heed: as, mark my words.  8.  to give a grade or grades to; rate: as, the teacher marked the examination papers.  9.  to put price tags on (merchandise).  10.  to keep (score, etc.); record.  v.i.  1.  to make a mark or marks.  2.  to observe; take note.  3.  in games, to keep score.—SYN. see sign.


To mark is to scar. I mark the page with my writing. I mark the earth with my footprint. Life has marked me, left me covered with reminders of growth and grief. I have scars that begin in my scalp and extend to the arch of my foot. If my lover is observant, he’ll note each scar, trace its comma or caret with his breath, his tongue, draw from me its story. I will rise up with each stroke, let him unfold my origami muscles, wail forth my love cry as I launch into flight.



tar·ant·ism  (ˈtarənˌtizəm),  n.  [It., tarantiscmo <  Taranto, Italy: so called because formerly epidemic in the vicinity of Taranto: popularly associated with the tarantula, by whose bite it was said to be caused; cf. TARANTULA, TARENTELLA], a nervous disease characterized by hysteria and a mania for dancing, especially as prevalent in southern Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries; also spelled tarentism.


Siena. 1995. I was on my first overseas research trip, preparing to do an intensive study of Italian and, I hoped, find time to get into the archives and start the initial research for my dissertation.

I had left behind my four-year-old daughter and her father, and as part of my studies, I was living with an elderly, irascible woman who was furious with me for a number of reasons, chief among them being that I didn’t speak any Italian and so wasn’t yet able to communicate with her.

When I had signed up for this particular intensive study, I had requested living with a family. It was what I had done in France in 1984, when, in ten weeks of living with a family with three children, plus attending six hours per day of language instruction, I had returned to the United States completely fluent in French. I had hoped for the same thing in Italy, but it was clear in the first twelve hours after arrival that I had been mismatched with my host family. For one thing, it wasn’t a family. It was just her, and she bullied me. It started when I didn’t finish everything on my dinner plate. She wasn’t the stereotype of the Italian mother who insists to her kids, “eat, eat!” she seemed more like the strega from Hansel and Gretel who wanted me to eat so that she might fatten me up, and eat me, I was convinced.

It didn’t help that I missed my child. I had never spent more than a week separated from her, and as I cried myself to sleep the first of sixty days that I was set to stay, in place of my daughter, I had brought along my old nemesis, panic.

Panic. Which wouldn’t let me sit still. Panic. Which caused me to walk and walk and walk from the outer hilltop where I was staying down into Siena’s ancient walls and to walk and walk without stopping for hours on end. I was afraid that if I sat I would die. If you’ve never suffered from a panic attack, imagine those dreams where you are in the middle of the road, a truck bearing down on you, and you cannot move. Panic, the leavings of our primordial brain, where the fight-of-flight instinct saved us when confronted by saber-toothed tigers and other creatures that wanted to eat us. Panic chased me through the streets of Siena, and kept me walking from dawn until dark.

The old woman would shout at me for having been gone all day, but how to explain to her that I had been bitten by this mania, this hysteria, for which I had no name and no idea how to cure myself of. I was afraid to go to an Italian emergency room for fear that they would lock me away in a psych ward.

And so, one pre-dawn morning, after a sleepless night, I dragged my belongings to a busstop, to the train station, and to the airport at Pisa, where I begged airline officials to let me change my ticket and go home.

I have since returned to Italy, and love it. But I have never forgotten its first bite.


hol·mic (hōlˈmĭk), adj.  of or containing trivalent holmium.

[hol·mi·um (hōl´me-um), n.  a metallic chemical element of the rare-earth group: symbol: Ho; at. wt., 164.94; at. no., 67.]


While it is an adjective that refers to the element holmium, I find that I use such adjectives sparingly in my prose. I once wrote a blog post that compared the reflection that came off sub-zero snow as reminding me of cobalt, I cannot think of a time that I have written something elemental.

But elemental leads me to elementary, and elementary leads me to Holmes. Sherlock Holmes, who, one could argue, has given rise to all manner of Holmic studies.

In high school, I loved chemistry, although I loathed the study of all other sciences. But chemistry was a series of puzzles; it was about balance and about figuring out what happened when you combined two elements to see if, placed together, they might not form something remarkable.

And puzzles. Well, that’s what Holmes solves, right? He begins with a clue and, before you know it, has inferred and deduced, and induced confessions from those he suspects.

So, from now on, perhaps I’ll refer to anything to do with Sherlock Holmes as holmic. Because it’s elemental, my dear Watson.




Lorraine Berry was ABD at Cornell when she finally figured out that she didn’t want to be an historian: she wanted to tell stories. Since quitting, she has worked in a number of places—including going back to waitressing—but currently teaches in the Professional Writing Department at SUNY Cortland. Her work can most often be found in or at She lives with her partner, Rob, and is raising two daughters. Her memoir in manuscript, “Word Lovers,” has been optioned for film. When not writing, Lorraine hikes the woods of the Finger Lakes with her two dogs.



Leave a comment

Filed under author interviews

the dictionary project author interview: Arianne Zwartjes


It’s the second Wednesday of the month at the dictionary project, and we have our second non-traditional author interview featuring writer Arianne Zwartjes!

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.




1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

My grandparents gave me my first dictionary, a brown leatherbound edition which I still have, packed as it is in boxes at the moment. My grandmother’s spidery handwriting stretches across the inside of the cover, for Arianne, so much love, etc etc. I was eight, I think, or nine. I still think of them every time I open it, which I do with fair regularity.


2. What is your current favorite word?

Currently my favorite word is eyesoar, a gross misspelling from a recent work email which, it occurs to me, creates gorgeous new meaning and is actually a way better word than the original they were trying to approximate.

3. What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

Like. Anyone who teaches must feel this way, I imagine.


4. Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:

os·ten·ta·tion  \ˌäs-tən-ˈtā-shən\  pretentious or excessive display — ostentatious \shəs\ adj  — ostentatiously  adv

ver·so  \ˈvər-sō\  n, pl   versos :  a left-hand page


draughts  \ˈdräf(t)s\  n, Brit  :  CHECKERS


Far East  the countries of  E Asia & the Malay Archipelago — usually thought to consist of the Asian countries bordering on the Pacific but sometimes including also India, Sri Lanka, Bangledesh, Tibet, & Myanmar — Far Eastern adj

film·o·gra·phy  \filˈmägrəfē\  n,  pl  phies  a list of motion pictures featuring the work of a film figure or a particular topic




leavings: a filmography


aisha is the one who should create any list of films. i am the verso, she the main page. this is an ostentation, a play for words, a desperate bid. tom waits agrees; he says i am striving. to lose at draughts, to misplay, to lose the lines on the road. this is the kind of move i have made recently.  when i traveled in the far east which is only far and only east to us, rooted as we are here in our stretching continent of asphalt and wheat and mountains, i learned the past moves in both directions, forward as well as behind us. when words try to pin that down they fail.




the idea of home is suspect. in spike jonze’ film the fall, a horse is winched from the river below a high bridge; it hangs dripping from the sling in a limp arc. a train is frozen on the trestle, a small black and white terrier barks furiously. (home can be person, place, or thing. nouns define us.) this intro is, in my opinion, the best part of the film.




i have been to two films recently which stopped midway through, the screen blurring or blacking out, the sound jelling to a halt. J tells me once when that happened to him, his friend seamlessly began verbalizing the soundtrack as he imagined it, and the whole theatre clapped when the scene was done. films that include separations, departures, homes found or homes lost: a river runs through it. lonesome dove. lawn dogs. once upon a time in anatolia. a la mar.







Arianne Zwartjes is addicted to the NPR show On Being. She is currently living out of a moving van traveling between Arizona and New Mexico. She will soon be living out of a backpack in the Gila wilderness. Lately she has fallen in love with The Brothers K by Robert James Duncan and with everything and anything by Fanny Howe.

1 Comment

Filed under author interviews

the dictionary project author interview: Nicole Sheets

Welcome to a new addition here at the dictionary project: author interviews!

The second and fourth Wednesday of each month, we will feature non-traditional author interviews, where instead of responding to direct questions about their life or work, guest authors will discuss their relationship to words and attempt to provide answers to dictionary project words bibliomanced specifically for them.

We are so pleased to announce our first featured author is Nicole Sheets!




1.   Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

When I first started graduate school, one gentleman caller mailed me a two volume compact Oxford English Dictionary, the kind with a magnifying glass in the little drawer. I discovered a Friday night game: split a bottle of red wine and the OED with a friend, and look up words as they pop into your head. Sometimes you need to swap volumes with your friend if she has the letters you need.

My OED has moved hundreds of miles with me. It sits on my floor next to one of my bookshelves, largely ignored by my cats, often commented on by dinner guests.


2.   What is your current favorite word?

“Buoyant.” I’ve been feeling pretty up lately, like an unsinkable Cheerio. In my memory of the commercial, those Os bounce to the bottom of the cereal bowl and back, through a cascade of milk.

Also, I recently learned “arctophile” when I clicked on a link at ( I confess that I often use an online dictionary in my office rather than the hardback Random House College Dictionary because I’m in a hurry). Isn’t it great that there’s a word for a lover and collector of teddy bears?


3.   What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

I’m cheating here because I asked some students to think about this question after reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. One student included “microwave” in her list, and that hit home with me. I dislike microwave’s nasal “r” that bunches up in my nose. My grandmother Hazel refers to her microwave as a “radar range,” which is a far superior name.

When I hear “microwave,” I also think of the microwave in the lunch room at my school. It’s not really a lunch room but more like an open kitchenette next to an alcove that thinks of itself as a lounge. Students and faculty microwave users are rather neighborly minded. Even so, the microwave deflates the meal experience. When you pop open the door and insert your single serve pyrex dish of last night’s stir fry, you see the ring of grease or splotches of overspill on the glass turntable and the sweat on the inside of the microwave door. On your hand you feel the moist breath from someone’s Lean Cuisine.

4.    Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:


un·faith·ful  \ˌənˈfāTHfəl\ adj  1  :  not observant of vows, allegiance or duty: DISLOYAL  INACCURATE, UNTRUSTWORTHY < a ~ copy of a    document >


Last year I tried being an engaged lady. John proposed, and I thought about the proposal for three weeks. And then I called him late one afternoon to tell him I would marry him after all. I had just finished a short run on the Centennial Trail. I thought it would be romantic to say yes by a waterfall. But the rush of water was so loud that we couldn’t hear each other, so instead I said yes in the parking lot of a nearby fish restaurant. I felt buoyant. It was a feeling that lasted about three weeks.

We broke off the engagement well before the vows. Now I have a ring the man doesn’t want back (“It isn’t really the kind of thing you recycle,” he said) and a white, unworn, fitted, lace confection bagged up and hanging in the back of my closet.



-less  \ləs\  adj suffix  1 :  destitute of : not having < childless >   2  :  unable to be acted on or to act (in a specified way) dauntless


I recently turned 35, and I’ve been thinking a lot about childlessness. Last fall, I visited friends in Moscow, Idaho, who have three lovely daughters. Frankie, the three-year-old, asked “Do you have kids?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because your car has so many doors.”

“Count your blessings,” one of my favorite sing-songy hymns instructs. And I do. The number is high. I can make up many verses. Even so, I feel the –less of my childlessness. I’m not yet hopeless. I’m far from fearless.



ex li·bris  \eks-ˈlē-brəs, -ˌbrēs\  [L]  :  from the books of  —  used on bookplates 


At the Huntington Mall, a habitat of my youth, I spent more time looking at stationery than at books at a bookstore. I would spend at least a couple of hours at the mall every Thursday with Hazel, my grandmother, after she picked me up from my piano lesson. We’d have dinner at the food court or at Morrison’s Cafeteria and be back at her house in time for The Cosby Show. In that era, there were two bookstores in the mall, Waldenbooks and Coles. Coles’ logo and storefront were yellow, and the white floor glared at the fluorescent overhead lights. I browsed the day-by-day calendars and fingered the tassel fringe of the circular racks of laminated bookmarks and bookplates with ex libris printed in scratchy calligraphy.



2branch  \ˈbranch\  vb  1 :  to develop branches  2 :  DIVERGE  3 :  to extend activities: <the business is ~ing out>


On the wall of my grandparents’ kitchen hung a small wooden tree. Its outline was rounded, cartoonish. The texture of the tree was green with small pale dots, and each member of the family had their name printed on an orange, wooden button. Nana and Grandaddy rested in the top branches. My dad, mom, and me down the right edge, and my dad’s sister, my uncle, and my cousins Melissa and Allison took up a fuller bough because there were more of them. Allison’s button was a slightly different shade of orange, suggesting that the tree was a gift before Allie was born. This was a few years before my brother was born and even more years before Allie died the summer after high school graduation.

The living orange buttons haven’t been together since Nana’s funeral. My remaining cousin branched out, got married, had two kids. The family branches stretch so far apart, we might as well be in separate trees. There’s no neat break from an axe’s clean tooth. Just a rot, slow and silent.



poor \ˈpür, ˈpȯr\  adj   1 :  lacking material possessions <~ people>  2 :  less than adequate : MEAGER <a ~ crop>  3 :  arousing pity <you ~ thing>  4 :  inferior in quality or value  5 :  UNPRODUCTIVE, BARREN <~ soil>  6 :  fairly unsatisfactory <~ prospects>; also : UNFAVORABLE <~ opinion> — poor·ly adv


I accidentally misquoted the Bible in a fellowship application, but, reader, I still got the money. When I was a kid, I memorized Bible verses for church all the time, inscribing them on my heart etc. For this fellowship, I was thinking about the word inheritance, and I rewrote the Bible so that it’s the poor who inherit the earth (in fact, it’s the meek. Consolation: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”). I was so sure in my rewrite that I didn’t even look it up to see if I was correct. I guess the fellowship committee liked my version, too.

I’m surprised when Mother Teresa, who lived among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, expressed compassion for the West. When she accepted her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa remarked that in her visit to a nursing home, the residents had material comforts but no one to visit them. Loneliness, lack of love, these are real poverty, Mother Teresa insisted. “I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first,” she said, “And begin love there.”



 Nicole Sheets teaches and writes in Spokane, Washington. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Image, Hotel Amerika, Cream City Review, and DIAGRAM. As WanderChic, Nicole blogs about travel and style for Wanderlust & Lipstick. She can be reached by email at


Filed under author interviews