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.)
- Dictionary of Khazars, by Milorad Pavić. The first dictionary I ever read from beginning to end.
- 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.
- A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, Richard A. Lanham.