Published March 7, 2006
I’ve been reading Simon Winchester lately, first “The Meaning of Everything,” his delightful, detailed history of the crowning masterpiece of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, the incomparable, preeminent, towering, unsurpassed, unrivaled lexicon of the English language that drives its admirers to the thesaurus in search of proper words of praise.
Winchester’s first book about the OED, “The Professor and the Madman,” titled less sensationally in Britain “The Surgeon of Crowthorne,” detailed the work of two men on the massive project in the late 1800s and led to his writing a complete history of the dictionary’s 70-year accretion from primordial word soup to a basaltic bastion of the language that, despite its complexity, is becoming the world’s lingua franca. After finishing the OED history, I immediately started Winchester’s latest, “A Crack in the Edge of the World,” a history of the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake and his third on a geological subject.
Winchester loves dictionaries and appropriately laces his writing with uncommon words, so I must keep a dictionary nearby if I’m to get his drift. Two words that drove me to the dictionary not uncomplainingly are conurbation and gallimaufry. Conurbation is an aggregation or continuous network of urban communities, and a gallimaufry is a hash or hodgepodge. Shakespeare uses the latter in “Winters Tale”: “They have a kind of dance which the wenches say is a gallimaufry of gambols, because they are not int.” A gallimaufrier, found so far only in the OED, is one who makes a medley.
While looking up these words, many others caught my eye, and I added them all to my list. When I encounter new words, I list the words, their meanings and sometimes their etymologies so I can review them and use them later. That page is peppered with the likes of contumacious (adj), stubbornly disobedient; contumacy, willful contempt of court; contumelious (adj): insolently abusive and humiliating; and contumely (n), harsh language or treatment arising from haughtiness and contempt or an instance of such language or treatment.
I hit a run of interesting words with proximo: of or occurring in the next month; related to proximate, which means immediately preceding or following, and close, as in proximity. (Saying close proximity is redundant.) Knowing this makes the Latin phrase proxima accessit, a runner-up, make sense. The antonym of proximate is ultimate, from Latin ultimatus. It means in its oldest sense the most remote in space or time, the last in a progression or series. It is most commonly used these days, though, to mean the best or most extreme, but the original meaning from the Latin has a literate charm lacking in today’s popular usage.
From ultimate comes ultima, the last syllable of a word; penultimate, the next-to-last; antepenultimate, third-to-last; and ultima ratio: the final argument. Ultimogeniture is a system of inheritance by which the youngest child succeeds to the estate. It is the opposite of primogeniture, in which the first-born child inherits the estate, which should not be confused with primogenitor, an ancestor.
Ultimate Thule is the end of the world. Thule was considered by the ancients to be the extreme northern limit of the world; it was a land, possibly the Shetland Isles north of Scotland or Norway, lying six-days’ sail north of Great Britain.
Sailing led me to orthodromy, the act or art of great-circle sailing, also called orthodromics. The prefix ortho- comes from Greek through Latin, Middle French and Middle English and means straight, right, true. The adjective is orthodromic.
A great circle is a line on the earth’s surface transcribed by a plane (a geometric plane, not an airplane) that intersects the center of the earth. A great circle is a line on the earth’s surface transcribed by such a plane, the shortest distance between two points on the globe. The equator and all meridians are great circles. Parallels of latitude, other than the equator, are not great circles and, though they look shorter, are longer than traveling a great circle. That’s why an airplane traveling from San Francisco, which lies just south of the 38 parallel, to Tokyo, which lies just south of the 36th parallel, flies in what looks like a northward-curving arc well north of the 45th parallel.
One final word I found interesting, a word I never suspected existed. It’s interrobang, the sign ?!
- American Indians
- C. History
- Civil War
- D. Books
- E. Clothing
- Historical Clothing
- Historical Festivals
- Musical Instruments
- Ohio History
- Old West
- Revolutionary War
- World War II