Dictionaries: Quirks and Perks

On an amusing collection of proverbs from Lanham’s “Handlist of Rhetorical Terms”.

michael-dam https://unsplash.com/?photo=1xpnPZJJHuM
A single word can seed a mental storm


Reading through a list often inspires dread or boredom. It is redolent of school, rote learning, tasks at work, chores at home, shopping at the supermarket on the weekend. It symbolises all those things you don’t want to do in your free time.

But wait, what about dictionaries?

Dictionaries are for daydreamers that think in words, mind-travellers that see adventures in a syllable, historians of linguistic persuasion. The fun is never-ending!

Am I in the minority again?

Browsing dictionary entries is an acquired taste, but every so often there’s an amusing comment or personal aside suitable for wider consumption.

Today I quote Lanham’s collection of proverbs (under the eponymous entry in his Handlist). You may not know some of the historical circumstances or persons that produced said proverbs (and indeed the target of at least one is contested in modern times, i.e. Churchill may have called someone else a sheep), but they’re a treat for anyone who likes a good play on words—as I believe my readers do.


Oddly enough, I have found no term for this intentionally self-conscious comic or parodic proverb as a special form. Dorothy Parker was very fond of them, as in “Brevity is the soul of lingerie,” or “If you laid all the Bennington girls from end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” My favorite example of this no-name figure has always been Claire [sic] Boothe Luce‘s “No good deed goes unpunished,” but Churchill‘s famous description of Clement Atlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” runs a close second, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth‘s “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me” finds a special echo in every breast. Nor have I found a term for specially invented modern sententiae which play self-consciously upon proverbiality, like Blake‘s “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” or “The cut worm forgives the plow.” Nor for inadvertent yet inspired variations such as “Sleeping dogs never lie.”

— Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms


Dictionary lovers, kindred spirits, I salute you! Go forth and enjoy a good dictionary read this weekend.

(To everyone else: word-obsession is an addiction never to be fully appeased or escaped—be glad you do not suffer it.)


Reading Recommendations

  1. Dictionary of Khazars, by Milorad Pavić. The first dictionary I ever read from beginning to end.
  2. The Thinkers Thesaurus, Peter E. Meltzer. Not your ordinary thesaurus; contains all those fancy words needed for reading magazines like the Times Literary Supplement or the Paris Review. Word-lovers and writers of non-fiction: this is for you. 
  3. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, Richard A. Lanham.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

9 thoughts on “Dictionaries: Quirks and Perks”

  1. I have several dictionaries of trivial matters in addition to various etymology works all of which I have read and read again. But my favorite is still my 1976 Webster’s Unabridged – I am amazed by all the words I had never known before!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too had a Webster’s, and I believe the same one! (I can’t check easily right now.) I spent so much time leafing through it … I thought of it more as an encyclopaedia, than a dictionary (and I certainly haven’t read it from end to end).

      Which are you favourite etymology works? I like Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon/Horologicon, but I’m on the look out for more fun reads.


  2. I used to read the dictionary a lot when I was younger, I’ve always been a real logophile. Just a shame my spelling can’t keep up with my love of words! The Alice Roosevelt Longworth‘s quote was new to me, amazing XD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, the spelling, I know how you feel! (And for me it’s the recall sometimes: what was that word I read which was a synonym for that other word which I read in that book with that title … sigh. Two hours later: I know the book’s title! Now just need to find the book, then find the word for the word …)

      The Longworth’s quote is something to ponder!


  3. Not strictly a dictionary, and possibly overly English-centric, but have you looked at “The Meaning of Liff” (by John Lloyd & Douglas Adams)? This is a book that sprang from the observation that there are lots of concepts which should have names but don’t, and lots of place names that merely clutter up a map and could be usefully brought into service as common nouns. Thus (more or less at random):

    Ramsgate: a door which opens the opposite way to the one you expect
    Yarmouth: to shout at foreigners in the belief that the louder you speak, the better they will understand you.
    Dinder: to nod thoughtfully while someone gives you a long and complex set of directions which you know you’re never going to remember.

    And a long sequence of words all beginning “Corrie” which explain all the subtleties of etiquette when walking down a corridor and seeing someone you recognize approaching…

    Probably the first dictionary-like object that I read end to end…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I hadn’t heard of it, but I’ll definitely look it up now, sounds like tremendous fun. (Since you wrote the comment I’ve been going around thinking about all the times I’ve dindered or seen others dindering, pleased I finally know what to call it!)

      Another “dictionary” that I’m minded to read soon is Mark Forsyth’s “The Horologicon”, which is about the lost words of the English language. And includes

      Groke: old Scots word, to groke is to gaze at somebody while they’re eating in the hope that they’ll give you some of their food.
      Uhtceare: describes that moment when you wake up too early and can’t get back to sleep, no matter how tired you are, because you’re worried about the day to come.
      Gongoozle: to gongoozle is to stare idly at a canal or watercourse. At the time, I thought it a weirdly precise and unnecessary word, but since then I’ve noticed gongoozlers everywhere.

      These and a few others I encountered in Forsyth’s article for The Guardian. We should bring them back (alongside new additions of Lloyd and Adams) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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