Posts Tagged ‘dictionary’

Quiz, Q and A, Goodreads, and Toponyms

January 14, 2012

I’ve been working over the past week through various channels to prepare the way for the swiftly-approaching publication of The Star Shard. It’s an exciting time!

As part of this initiative, I’ve set up an author page on Goodreads. If you don’t know about the site, this is an unabashed plug for it! Believe me, I’m not a fan of popular Internet time-drains. But I think most of you would agree with me that Goodreads rises above the morass. If you love to read, the site is worth checking out. It’s free, it’s easy to sign up for, and it’s a great way to connect with people who like the same kinds of books you do — or simply to find out about books that you may not have encountered yet. In the first twenty-four hours after I got onto the site and started rating books I’ve enjoyed and marking books I’d like to read, an acquaintance of mine (a friend of a friend) noticed one of the books I’d tagged and was delighted to discover it — he hadn’t known it existed, but he’d been wishing it did. That’s one way the site can work.

Anyway, I’ll end the commercial there. If you’re interested, you can explore the wonders for yourself. I just wanted to bring a couple things to your attention:

1. I wrote a quiz on Dragonfly that (I think) is a lot of fun. It has 13 questions, and some are apparently trickier than I thought — last time I looked, no one had gotten a perfect score. If you’ve read Dragonfly and would like to test your knowledge of the book — or even if you’d like to enjoy the questions and multiple-choice answers, which I had a GREAT time coming up with — then I’d encourage you to get onto Goodreads and take the quiz! I think the best way to find it is to look up Dragonfly on the site, click on the book, and if you scroll down on the book’s page, you’ll find the quiz.

2. Also on Goodreads, I’m leading a Q&A session from now until the end of January. I seeded it with four discussion threads, but discussion members can introduce new ones. If anyone is at all inclined, this is something I’d greatly appreciate your help with! I’m trying to generate a buzz for the new book’s release. If you can spare a few minutes to drop by and ask me even one question, that would help! If people start participating, I think it could get quite interesting. To find the discussion, either search for me on Goodreads or click on my name wherever you see me listed on the site, and on my page, (again) if you scroll down, you should come to the discussion; then just click on the topic you want to follow. If you’re able to help out with this, thank you very much!

Finally, let’s talk about some interesting words. (Yes, this is a groink, a major change of subject.)

I’ve been thinking lately about the phenomenon of toponyms, those words in our language that began as the names of places (topos is the Greek word for “place”). For example:

solecism — This has come to mean “an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence; also, a minor blunder in speech”; “something deviating from the proper, normal, or accepted order”; or “a breach of etiquette or decorum.” But did you know that the word comes from the ancient Cilician city of Soloi, where “a substandard form of Attic was spoken”? So a soloikos, an inhabitant of Soloi, was a “speaking-incorrectly-one.”

gasconade — “bravado, boasting” — This word has come from the Gascony region of southwest France, bordering Spain; the Gascons were apparently known for boasting and exaggerating their successes. The word became common in English in the 1700s.

Cimmerian — “very dark or gloomy; stygian” — The Cimmerians were a mythical people “described by Homer as dwelling in a remote realm of mist and gloom.” Another source I found adds that this land was “in the west” (from the Hellenic point of view), and that the Cimmerii (the people there) were nomadic and were mentioned by Herodotus.

laconic — “using or involving the use of a minimum of words; concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious” — I remember once reading a great story about the origin of this word. When the enormous Persian army came to the gates of the Spartan city of Laconia, the Persian envoy, in an attempt to get the Spartans to surrender, yelled: “If we take this city, we will kill all the men and lead the women and children away as slaves!”

The Spartan general returned the one-word answer: “If.”

As the story goes, the Persians were unable to conquer the city, and they eventually withdrew.

[The definitions I’ve written above are from my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.]

What got me thinking about toponyms was good old Dictionary.com, which led me to a couple of these. So, yeah, I guess this is another commercial! In the brief time I’ve been receiving Dictionary.com’s free daily word, I’ve written down several ideas for use in books and stories. I would highly recommend the word-a-day to writers and to anyone who loves words!

I’ll close with a couple more cool ones:

Words such as “sense” and “sensibility,” which have a common root, are paregmenons.

And the shape of a 20-sided die (a 20-sided polyhedron) is an icosahedron.

Yes, I get a little crazy when I haven’t written fiction for too long! I can feel the charge building . . . it’s going to arc any day now, and we’re going to have some lightning!

A Writer’s Best (Non-Human) Friend

June 26, 2010

After all these years, I specifically remember only two of the presents I received upon graduating from high school. I know there were many others, and I recall the wonderful gathering of friends and family at our house — and the many cards wishing me well. But, material presents, I remember two: the Taylor family gave me a big black umbrella, which I thought was very cool — it seemed like just the thing to have as a college student; the other, from my parents, was Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. They filled out the front page: Presented to Fred Durbin by Mom & Dad, June 6, 1984. [Wow! That was the anniversary of D day, 40 years later! Isn’t that a solemn realization in and of itself? Forty years before I exited the troop ship and charged up onto the beach of the world, other young — and not-so-young — guys were doing it for real. If they hadn’t done what they did then, I would have been going out into a much different world. . . .]

But anyway: that dictionary has been my constant companion ever since. It’s been to college, it’s crossed the ocean several times, and wherever I’ve set up a workspace for even a short while, my dictionary has been within easy reach.

In 1993-4, the year I worked for a Japanese company thinly disguised as a school, I had an actual desk at work — that’s the only year I’ve ever had a workspace all my own on the job, a desk with my stuff on and in it — and yes, to be sure, my dictionary was there. My fellow native-English-speaking teachers, who had desks all around mine, regarded me as “the guy to have proofread your writing before you use it in any public way.” One co-worker in particular would ask me to proofread things, and whenever I would frown slightly and reach for my dictionary, she would laugh and say, “Okay, what did I misspell now?” (A dictionary at work is a great tool for politeness. It takes the heat for you. You never have to tell co-workers that you think they’re wrong; you adopt the official stance of being “not sure,” you look it up, and the authoritative answer is there in black-and-white!)

About ten or so years ago, I got to  thinking that the language had changed enough since 1984 that it was time for a new dictionary. Not that I wanted to get rid of my dear old Webster’s from my parents — not at all! But I felt it was time for that one to have a junior partner, a helper, a back-watcher. My mom was of the opinion that dictionaries never go out of date; she was still using the Webster’s she received when she went to college. Truth be told, I was using that one (of hers), too. It was our “house dictionary.” Mom had it on a wooden stand that was probably supposed to have been for a Bible. Throughout my childhood and even into my Japan years (since my dictionary was in Japan), I would run into the dining room when I needed to look up a word. It was tattered from decades of use and the pages were yellowing, but it still got the job done.

But I longed for a dictionary that reflected the current language, so when my friend C. in Niigata asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said I’d really like the latest edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As it turned out, the local bookstore didn’t have a Webster’s when we went shopping. However, they had a beautiful Oxford English Dictionary. I immediately saw the wisdom and attractiveness of having both my Webster’s (American) and the Oxford (British). I could compare spellings and usages in the two countries as well as across time. So that was my birthday present from C. that year, and it’s one of the birthday presents I’ll always remember most — because now it stays with me, too, wherever I am.

C. is full of questions. Once he asked me something about the battle of Thermopylae. The next time I saw him, I gave him some detailed notes. He said, “Wow! You went ‘Net-surfing!” I said, “No, I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary you gave me.”

After my year in the States, I was shipping things back to Japan, and the guy who runs the shipping company in my hometown looked askance at these two heavy dictionaries I was sending overseas. It’s not cheap to send books that hefty. He asked, “Don’t they have dictionaries in Japan?” Well, yes, they do . . . but these were my dictionaries. They have children in Europe, too, but if you’re moving there with your family, I’ll bet you’ll take your own kids, even though they cost.

A third dictionary joined the team after Mom passed away: not her old one, which is now in storage (but will be back on my shelf someday, Lord willing, when/if I set up a desk in the States), but a deluxe Merriam-Webster’s that my dad gave her. I haven’t really gotten into the habit of using it, because my Webster’s and Oxford do the job so well for me. But still, I’m glad the deluxe edition is there.

So what’s all the fuss? What’s so great about dictionaries? After all, our computers have spell-checkers, right? And if you need to know anything, you can look it up on-line. Plus, there are perfectly good, state-of-the-art electronic dictionaries no bigger than a pocket calculator that could save me hundreds of dollars in shipping expenses. Yes, but. . . .

Partly, it’s the difference between buying a book on Amazon and buying a book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. The difference is getting to see and walk past and handle all those books you don’t buy.

When I go to look up a word in a paper dictionary, I almost never get to that word without being ensnared by four or five other words first. Seriously — can you go right to the word you went after, and not read anything else? It’s like putting a mouse into a cheese shop and telling him, “Go straight to the far wall, tag it, and come straight back here.” Not going to happen.

There was an English prof we had in college who would say, “I got the new such-and-such dictionary. I haven’t finished reading it yet. I’m about halfway through.” We thought that was hilarious, the idea of sitting and reading a dictionary. Personally, I’ve never done that, but the longer I live and the more deeply I appreciate language, the less funny that sounds to me.

Dictionaries give you definitions, of course. When I read H.P. Lovecraft, he nearly always sends me running for the dictionary. When I read Lud-in-the-Mist, I made a list of words to look up. You want to know what the list was? I’ve got it right here. Are you ready?

pleached, propinquity, ribands, ribbands, chiaroscuro, hierophantic, cozeners/cozening, plangent, potsherds, poncifs, fulminate, byre, barouche, exogamy, cockchafe, spurious, disquisition, spinney, brawn [as a food], syllabub, squills, “mopping and mowing,” hartshorn, carminative, civet cat, velleity, tuftaffities, sententious, osier, porphyry, quinsy, perdurable, casuistry, cicerone, frangipane, perroration, pullulating

Be honest, now. If you knew the meanings of even most of those, you’re a far better man than I! (Even if, like Eowyn, you’re not a man!)

But also, dictionaries help us with spelling. Like I’ve said, “queue,” “oubliette,” and “oeuvre”. . . . I have to look them up every. Single. Time. (It’s like trying to figure out which side of the car the gas tank inlet is on. If you’re like me, you squirm inwardly every single time you pull into a gas station — which side is it?!)

But those are just the clinical uses of the dictionary. The real reason I love my dictionaries, not simply rely on them, is that they’re like friends who actually help me write.

Writing is a notoriously solitary activity. We writers cloister ourselves off from the world, face the blank screen or paper, and make our sacrifices. We miss the TV shows and the visits and the concerts, etc., in order to walk the lonely path, that line from word to word to word. No one can do it for us. No one can tell us what to write. Except. . . .

“Where do you get your ideas?” people ask us. “Where do these ideas come from?”

I think the single best answer just may be “from the dictionary.” The words we use are all in there, after all. (Well, no, that’s not true. We speculative fiction writers insist upon making up a sizable percentage of our vocabulary. But the dictionary is a great help in making things up, too.) I can’t tell you how many times the dictionary has bailed me out when I’ve needed a name for a character or a place. Not that I necessarily use a word as-is to be a character’s name — I’m not writing Pilgrim’s Progress. But words have resonances; words have sounds and elements. I may lift a part of this word and combine it with a part of that one. I may borrow a word for the way it means or the way it rings. One thing can lead to another — the dominoes fall — and sometimes the dictionary can even unravel plot problems. It’s the wise friend who’s always there. It’s comforting, solid, and infinitely sane. It’s realistic, your anchor to the Earth. It can absorb your tears and help you see more clearly when you’re ready to.

Webster’s is the king of dictionaries for two reasons: it shows where words are divided (which Oxford doesn’t) — and far more wonderfully, it comes with pictures! They’re not there for every word. But for a huge number of words whose meanings are hard to grasp or envision, Webster’s is there with a visual rendering. Again and again over the years, a picture has snagged my gaze, and I’ve understood something new and crucial about my story. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, then Webster’s is priceless.

A dictionary can help you find things that you didn’t know you were looking for. Character names . . . costuming . . . architecture . . . plot points . . . conflicts . . . historical details . . . complications . . . specificity. Precision. The right tool for the right job. At every stage of the writing process, from conceptual work to the final buffing of a manuscript on its way out the door, a dictionary is the friend to have beside you.

So how about you, dear readers? In your walk of life — in your career or your hobby — what is the tool you wouldn’t want to be without, and why?