Daily Archives: May 21, 2009

The Dave Shields Abecederian

If you read some of my recent posts closely you will find such words as “eponymous,” “euphonious,” “nubbin,” and “sobriquet.”

These are not common words, and here is why I not only know them, but had made them part of my working vocabulary before I was twenty.

During my years in high school I worked twenty or more hours a week, and full-time in the summer, for a small company in my hometown, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

They let me go in the middle of senior year. They had earlier gotten some funding from the publisher Grolier’s, and had spent most of it on a new building which had a swimming pool on the roof, a ridiculous thing to do in ABQ’s scorching temperature and blazing sun.

Now having lots of time on my hands, I decided to run an experiment to see how late I could stay up at night. Having read the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, from cover to cover twice a few years earlier, I decided to do something involving very structured reading.

I tried the works of Henry James, and soon learned that to read his dense prose after midnight is to consume the best sleeping potion yet devised. Three paragraphs and I was a goner. I later read James during my college summers in ABQ, when I had to go to sleep in a small apartment with no air conditioning save a failing “swamp cooler.”

swamp cooler a device for cooling the air in arid climates, consisting of a box containing a large fan surrounded by straw mats, over which water is slowly dripped.

So I decided to read the dictionary cover to cover, making a list of the words I might find useful later in life. I also wanted to improve my vocabulary, since my mother, even though she never attended college, had the largest working vocabulary I had yet seen, I excluded scientific names and terms, especially for biology.

I have yet to meet a person with a larger working vocabulary that my mother. She loved crossword puzzles, and was also very good at creating them, usually as a hand-made puzzle as a form of birthday card, with the answers being traits of the subject, or other miscellania. She subscribed to the Manchester Guardian for decades, both the get their famed puzzle each week, as well as Alistair Cooke’s wonderful “Letter from America.”

I then read a few pages each night, writing down the words I found interesting in a small black loose-leaf notebook.

Filling those pages represented an enormous investment of my time. I used the American College Dictionary.

The ACD runs to 1421 pages. There are about forty words to a page, for a total of 1.4e3 pages times 4e1 words/page, which yields 5.6e4, or almost 60,000 words.

As I have written in an earlier post, Jack Schwartz once lost part of the manuscript for the last volume of Dunford and Schwartz. He searched for it for weeks, and eventually found it.

I thought I had lost my small notebook. A few years back I came across it. I was pleased to learn I still had it in my possession, but I foolishly put it back where I had found it, and have been unable to locate it since.

So I have decided to re-create it, as time permits, knowing that as I reach the last page of the Z’s, it will finally turn up. If it does, it will be interesting to see how the two lists compare. If not, at least I will have an updated abecedarian.

I will also try to only include words that I didn’t know back then.

Here there are the first few words for my abecedarian, up to the word “abecedarian” itself:

aardwolf a striped, hyenalike African Mammal. I probably added since since it so close to aardvark, which I knew

Abaddon the place of destruction; the depth of hell (known these days as Redmond, Washington.)

abatis an obstacle of trees with bent or sharpened branches directed toward the enemy

abecedarian a pupil who is learning the letters of the alphabet; a beginner

I was delighted to come across this word so early in my journey, for it precisely described what I was trying to do.

“Abecedarian” was thus the first entry on my list of the favourite words that I learned during my experiment. Others that immediately come to mind include:

eleeomosynary of or pertaining to alms, charity, or charitable donations; charitable. I was struck by the initial “eleeo,” four vowels in five letters, and also the ending “synary.”

lagniappe something given with a purchase to a customer by way of compliment or for good measure. This would become #1, though I didn’t know that when I wrote it down.

philopena a friendly or playful practice by which when two ersons have by agreement shared a nut with two kernels, or the like, the person who fails subsequently to meet certain conditions is bound to pay the other a forfeit; the thing shared, the forfeit paid. As it turned out, it would be a tie for first place: “lagniappe” and “philopena.”

These words are examples of the pleasure that can come from reading a dictionary. Apart from names, the word definitions, each the work of a team of skilled linguists and writers, are exemplars of writing that is both terse and precise.

exemplar a model or pattern to be copied or imitated; an example; typical instance.

“Examplar” comes just a few words after another favourite:

exegesis critical explanation or interpretation, esp. of Scripture. [t. NL, t. Gk, explanation], where “t” stands for “taken from.”

A related word is “prooftext.” It is not in the ACD. I wanted to use it recently, but had forgotten the word. I sent a query via twitter to @jonstalling and he immediately gave me the word. John is a minister. I added him to my twitter list since his church includes the world “Lynwood,” my first name.

prooftext defined by Wikipedia as “Prooftexting is the practice of using decontextualised quotations from a document (often, but not always, a book of the Bible) to establish a proposition. Critics of the technique note that often the document, when read as a whole, may not in fact support the proposition.”

Note that Wikipedia’s defintion is much more verbose than it would be in the ACD had they included it. Wikipedia is good at gathering the essentials of a topic, but the writing leaves much to be desired. It’s a shame that more people skilled in editing don’t participate in the project.

Until the mid 1800’s it was assumed that any educated person had a detailed knowledge of the Bible, and so people could converse in prooftext. I recently wrote a post using prooftext from Ecclesiastes. The most common prooftext today is “John 3:16,” often seen on signs at sporting events.

The word origins define a world in themselves. For example, I had four years of Latin, and am also left-handed, so I noted with interest that “siniister” derives from the Latin “sinestre,” for “on the left.” “Dextrous” derives from “dexter,” for “on the right.”

These words are examples of discrimination enacted into our language. Others include “barbarian” and “yid, ” each an example of xenophobia:

xenophobia fear or hatred of strangers

I recall, though the ACD doesn’s say it, that “xenos” is Greek for stranger. This in itself is another reason to read a dictionry. “xeno” is a root. If you can learn the roots, most of which come from Latin or Greek, then it becomes much easier to guess the definition of a word you haven’t see before. For example, “phobia,” derives from the Greek “phobos,” or fear, as shown by “acrophobia,” fear of heights, “hydrophobia,” feat of water, and the well-known “agoraphobia,” fear of crowds. “Agoraphobia” is the joining of two roots: “agora” for “marketplace,” or open space, and “phobia.”

Jack Schwartz was a great student of language. Though he had a large vocabulary, it wasn’t as large as my mother’s. He told me about the world “lox” after he had read a dictionary of Indo-European roots. He had found that “lox”, for “fish” or “salmon,” was among the oldest words whose derivation had been determined.

By the way, there is one word that is used more than almost any other English word throughout the world, even by people who don’t speak English. It is “ok,” yet its origin remains an open topic. The ACD says of it, “O.K., origin much debated, but prob. def. “O.K. Club,” formed in 1840 by partisans of Martin van Burnen who alledgedly named their organization in allusion to “Old Kinderhook,” his birthplace being Kinderhook, N.Y..” This is another example an a very carefully drawn definition, one with not a single needless word.

I expect to find my lost abecedarian as I approach the end, perhaps even just after writing down “zucchetto,” the only I recall from the short journey through the letter “Z.”
It is the name of the small cap that looks like a yamulke which is worn by Catholic clerics. “Zucchetto” derives from the Italian “zucchetta,” a diminuitive of “zucca,” for gourd or head.

Some words, of which “zucchetto” is a good example, are of limited use in ordinary conversation. I doubt you have ever heard anyone say, “Did you see the Pope’s new zucchetto? He looks very handsome in it.”

I once heard a similar anecdote about someone who had studied French in college. They recalled only a single phrase, and spent their entire life trying, without success, to work into a conversation: “The innkeeper has just been struck by lightning. What should I do?”

Professor Ken Kennedy, a colleague from my student days at NYU, once remarked that one of the first phrases he learned in any language was, “Where is your bedroom?”

I wrote a post recently that used the word “nubbin.” I said it was a nelogism for I knew it was in the dictionary, but I didn’t recall if it had been on my list. I just looked it up and found:

nubbin a small lump or piece; a small or imperfect ear of maize; an undeveloped fruit.

I’m now certain it is on the list, for I do recall writing down a word derived from “maize,” the native American name for what we call corn.

Nubbins: Blogging is to Coding as Coding is to Mathematics

Redmonk’s Steve O’Grady writes occasional posts titled, for example, “Friday Grab Bag.” Each is short and consists of series of brief discussions of topics, each of which he could of course expand into a complete post, but he publishes them just as abbreviated drafts, since his busy schedule and the priorities of being a Redmonk partner require that he give attention where attention is due, especially in these difficult economic times.

I now face the same problem.

I need to make coding my main passion, not blogging.

I’m going to adopt a similar strategy, though I will use the word “nubbins” instead of the phrase “grab bag.”

“Nubbin” is not a neologism, but an actual word. It stands for a small ear or corn, or an undeveloped fruit. I first heard it used by Jack Schwartz, when he spoke of “nubbins of code” as part of a particular compiler/translation process, by which he meant the translator would emit small sequences of code in an orderly fashion.

I have faced this problem before. About September, 1969, knowing that I had to finally undertake the arduous course of study needed to pass an oral exam so I could continue on the path towards a doctorate, I realised that I had to abandon programming, my great passion. I could not do both, for turning to coding as a relief from studying advanced mathematics would be a fatal trap. I also knew the call to programming would be a siren’s song, for I then made my living by coding.

So I took a self-imposed sabbatical from coding and became a part-time New York CIty taxicab driver for several months.

Driving a cab is a simple job, though it is arduous in its own way. You leave the fleet garage, work for a few hours, go back to the garage, and then go home. It’s a hard way to make a buck, but you do leave the job behind.

I can testify under oath that I never lay awake in bed at night wondering if I could have made more money going up 10th Avenue instead of 8th, because I forgot the Knicks were playing the Celtics at home, and thus traffic had been a nightmare near 34th and 8th.

In those days, before the advent of the internet, you had to be at the computer center to code. On more weekends than I can count, I would leave Courant late on a Friday comfortable that all the immediate problems had been conquered.

Then, on the subway home, and in some cases on the way to the subway station, I would suddenly realise that I had left a bug behind back in my office, and I would then be consumed trying to find the fix, knowing that the weekend was in part shot, for I would be thinking about that damn bug for most of the weekend.

I also recall many a time when I returned to the office after I had set out for home, to make just a quick fix, only to find it was tougher than I had thought. My wife soon got used to the variability of our dinner schedule, and I remain in her debt. [1]

Even worse was figuring out the source of the problem before I arrived home, as then I knew I would have to wait until Monday to fix it, and so would be delayed in the finding of the next bug.

I did pass the exam, in May of 1970, but that had a sad side-effect.

As I left the exam room, I said to myself that I now knew more of a variety of fields of mathematics than I would know for the rest of my life. Though I knew I was a programmer at heart, I did love mathematics, and I could foresee that theorem after beautiful theorem would soon be falling from my memory, as do the leaves from the trees.

I miss them still. Though I do remember the names of the most of them, I don’t have the proofs, nor the time to bring them back now.

I first became aware of this loss of memory after Richard Feynman’s very first lecture on quantum mechancs.

It was his most memorable lecture. He started by saying, “We have these little things called atoms that jiggle,” and then proceeded to lay out the essence of quantum mechanics in less than an hour.

I left the lecture hall at noon just KNOWING quantum mechanics. But as I began the journey down the Olive Walk to my job as a waiter at the Caltech Faculty Club I felt the edifice — like the Tower of Babel — start to tumble.

First I couldn’t recall why A had implied B, though he had convinced me it was true. Then I forgot the precise definition of A.

By the time I put on my white waiter’s coat the whole structure — all of quantum mechanics — had been left behind in nubbins of information on the Olive Walk.

But at least — if only for a few minutes — I did understand quantum mechanics. I really did.

Then again, what’s a quantum?

I’ve forgotten.


1. Being in debt to your cutie-pie is not a problem if on occasion you use a ploy that I have found to be quite effective:

I have yet to meet a woman who complained after her husband gave her something he had bought at Tiffany’s.

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