Beginning with A

Beginning the New Year with a perusal of the Merriam-Webster’s “A” section.

The start of a new year is like the start of spring: you’re full of hope and projects and dreams of summer, albeit due to calendric conventions rather than mating calls and increased sunlight. The newness implies a clean beginning, all metaphorical buds and blossoms, unencumbered by preceding dead leaves. Like the first page of an unread book, or the first sentence of that first page.

But that’s still thinking in generalities.

I wanted to open up this year’s literary adventure with something truly fundamental, yet protean. And what is a more fresh and clean embodiment of potentiality than the first letter of the alphabet?

So I celebrated the 1st of January by flipping through the word-entries under the letter A in a copy of the 1976 Webster’s dictionary.

I would not recommend it as light gym reading: it weights as much as a three-month-old baby (six kilos), it’s markably more oblong and unwieldy than a baby, and is a tad more knowledgable at two-thousand-plus pages. Instead, I would recommend laying the dictionary on a desk, opening it wide, then remaining standing up and looking down at it, from a position of power. Otherwise it may threaten to make you feel diminished.

It’s also an excellent flat paperweight for pressing warped watercolour artworks, crumpled diplomas, or curling old photos—but that’s beside the point!

Here’s a glimpse into the fun I had with the letter A.

We all know the first word of the A section. Can you guess the last, or at least, how close can you get to guessing the last word?

(I tried azalea. Then Azerbaijan. Lastly, azote—which is on the final page of the section, but I couldn’t do any better.)

If you say aztec, that’s roughly in the last twenty-five; if you say aztec maroon, that’s in the last twenty.

Azure gets you in the last fifteen, azury in the last ten.

If you remembered azygote, that’s in the last five.

Azyme (unleavened bread) is the second to last, and the final entry is …

Azzazeme, an Arab people living chiefly in the Sinai peninsula but found scattered throughout the Arab world. Curiously, the online Merriam-Webster too contains this word, while the online OED does not. Indeed, the last word beginning with a in the online version of Oxford English Dictionary is azymous (meaning unleavened).

Next up: pictures.

Yes, I do mean little pictorial irregularities punctuating the dense columns of a serious, full-blown dictionary, not an encyclopaedia and not a learner’s edition. My first question is everyone’s first: what is the picture? My second is: why is this word illustrated and not some other? There aren’t that many illustrations: at most one per page on average.

Obviously, depicting a an airwave or an air war is more subtle then depicting an air twist (beautiful word, by the way), but I cannot believe that there’s a dearth of visually representable nouns. I hadn’t the time to investigate the preface information thoroughly but it’d be interesting to know who makes these choices and how.

I was drawn mostly to the pictures that depicted aesthetically pleasing things: like the air twist.

There’s also:

agrafe, a hook-and-loop fastening;

anthemion, an ornament consisting of floral or foliated forms arranged in a radiating cluster but always flat; 

arcature: a small arcade, a blind arcade;

armillary sphere: an ancient astronomical instrument composed of an assemblage of rings, designed to represent the positions of important circles of the celestial sphere, and turning on its polar axis within a meridian and horizon;

aryballos: a flask or bottle that has a short neck, single handle, small orifice, with flaring lip and globular body that is often elaborately decorated and that is used for holding oils or ointments;

as: libra, or bronze coin of the ancient Roman republic;

 atlas: 3. the first cervical vertebra articulating immediately with the skull and thus sustaining the globe of the head;

What about you? Anything quirky that kicked off your New Year (and is suitable for public consumption)?

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

12 thoughts on “Beginning with A”

  1. I had been using little-used words as the inspiration for sonnets, but since finishing Busting the Bard (yes, it’s on amazon) I hadn’t written any. Now I have some new words to play with in my spare time. (What’s that?) I’m really glad they drew the air twist; from the word alone I thought it would be a mis-translation back to English for a dust devil/twister/small tornado.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad if there’s a word or two in there to inspire you. Do send me a link of your sonnet if you use any of them.

      Hah, yes, the air twist … I hadn’t free-associated on that word before I saw what it actually meant, but you’re right, small tornado—one perfectly plausible option.


      1. Hmm, don’t know! For me it takes me straight to the editing page, of course. Technology. Ha. Anyway, perhaps I can guide you; if you go to my blog home page and then to the blog roll, I posted it on Jan 26th. If that doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll paste it in a message.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Finally found it—I don’t know why the link didn’t work the first time. I’m glad armillary sphere made for a good topic.

        (I wrote this in the comment on your blog, but gratitude is always welcome I presume:)

        Thanks for letting the words from my blog migrate and continue to live on yours!


    1. Sweet! Thanks for letting me know about the opening paragraph—I often pay special attention to it when writing, and it’s nice to hear the effort’s appreciated 🙂

      Browsing dictionaries, yes, brings back the memories. Those old mystery-and-time scented beasts have lots to teach (still).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I assume that English and American lexicographers aren’t fans of Italian football, unlike Times Crossword compilers. |The Italian national team is called the Azzurri.

    Liked by 2 people

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