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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 24, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Merriam-Webster, Befudiom, Human Statue of Liberty

My acquaintance with the Merriam-Webster company is entirely in the realm of dictionaries. They have been, through my entire professional life, the makers of the dictionary of first and last resort.

The name "Webster's" is not copyrighted and can't be. When a dictionary is called "Webster's" it implied little more than (a) this is a dictionary and (b) it is likely to use American spellings rather than British ones.

Anybody can call their dictionary "Webster's."

But for more than a century, the "Webster's Dictionary" that most people meant was the one published by the Merriam company (now Merriam-Webster). They were the American dictionary of record.

Bad Words

A few decades ago, however, they fell from public favor because the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster decided to include, in their unabridged dictionary, all the "bad" words.

I put "bad" in quotation marks because in my opinion, there are no bad words. There are, however, forbidden words that acquire power within a community because they cause offense or outrage.

To use such words with the intention of causing offense is bad. But in the sounds themselves, or even in the meaning, there is nothing intrinsically bad. After all, there is not a single "bad" word for which we do not have other words with the identical meaning which are perfectly acceptable.

For a certain S word, for instance, we have words that are downright cute: "doo-doo," "poo," and "number two" being the most common. For the anatomical and sexual terms, we have a complete set of replacements that are perfectly polite, coy, clever, or provocative without being banned.

Back when our whole society had a common set of religious beliefs, there were words referring to deity that were also forbidden to polite or pious people; they spawned their own set of euphemisms that now seem merely quaint or ridiculous to many people: "gosh," "geeze," "golly," "egads," "gee," "goldarn," "darn," "dang," "doggone," "heck," and even the archaic "zounds" and "gadzooks" (from the oaths "by God's wounds" and "by God's hooks" [the nails in the cross]).

These words shift and change in their power and their degree of forbiddenness. The religious words are now so common that many people are unaware that anyone is offended by them. But many of us continue to be offended or hurt or angered by careless or slighting use of the names of God.

At the same time, a whole range of words that used to be only mildly offensive or "low class" have become shocking and unspeakable. Times change, and so does language.

So in 1961, the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster decided their job was not so much to prescribe language as to record it. Certainly it was not their job to conceal words. The result was the Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which sparked enormous controversy (well, at least it was enormous for a dictionary!) because it included the bad words.

In fact, this opened an opportunity for "nice" dictionaries like Random House's to make a dent in Merriam-Webster's dominance of the dictionary market. But today, as far as I know, all the unabridged dictionaries include all the words.

Why Dictionaries?

Why do we need dictionaries? If it's spelling you want, how can you look up a word you can't spell? How can you find "phonetic" if you don't know it begins with "ph" instead of "f"?

Mostly, we use them to find the meanings of unfamiliar words we run into when we're reading -- or familiar words that seem to be used oddly.

Also, we use them to find pronunciations. But there's where we run into real problems.

Most of us aren't familiar with the phonetic alphabet that linguists use, and why should we be? Worse yet, many of us grow up with a regional accent that makes it very difficult to interpret the pronunciation guides.

I remember being baffled, as a kid, by a vowel distinction between the "o" in "hot" and the "a" in "father." Growing up in California, I never heard any distinction between those vowels. They both sounded like "short o" to me.

Only later did I hear accents that made the distinction clear. For instance, the broad "a" of "father" in Boston, that makes Bostonians sound silly when they say they're going to "pahk the cah." And the "short o" of "hot" in New York, which sounds to my western ears like "hoe-waht."

And let us not forget the "short o" of "dog" here in the South, often written as "dawg," which doesn't begin to cover the whole vowel.

Foreign Pronunciations

Recently, an audiobook director that I know was desperately searching for the pronunciation of Zulu words that the professional reader was going to have to say because they were included in the book he was going to have to read.

The phonetic listings of the words in a Zulu dictionary were completely unhelpful. There are sounds in Zulu that English-speakers are simply incapable of making.

I can more or less fake the near-impossible glottal consonants of Arabic, but I can do nothing with the clicks of southern Bantu languages like Zulu and Xhosa -- and those languages are mild compared to the variety of clicks in the Khoisan languages spoken by the Khoikhoi (Hottentot) and San (Bushmen).

How can you make a stream of outgoing sound and interrupt it with clicks that as far as I know can only be made by sucking air into the mouth?

Every language has sounds that baffle speakers of other languages. Listen to how foreigners generally butcher the "th" sound, or fail to heard the flat "short a" of "pat."

Then again, listen to how native speakers of American English often can't distinguish between "short e" and "short i," so we have to resort to "inkpen" as a word instead of simply "pen," since so many people make the same sounds for "pin" and "pen."

Anyway, the audiobook director was desperate for some kind of guide to pronouncing Zulu.

She had been burned a year earlier when she contacted the main offices of an American Indian tribe to find someone to help her pronounce their language. Incredibly, the person who answered the phone in the tribal offices berated her for daring to think she could "learn" their language in a few minutes.

It apparently did not occur to this office worker that it is in the interest of the tribe to have their language pronounced as correctly as possible in audiobooks that are mostly in English.

Looking for experts in an American Indian language is far easier than trying to locate native speakers of Zulu on an emergency basis -- phone calls to Swaziland or Lesotho are far less likely to be answered by someone who speaks English, and cost a lot more, too.

Fortunately, though, there's a website called "isiZulu.net" that offers a superb pronunciation guide. Even if you have no interest in the Zulu language, it's worth visiting to see -- and hear -- why online dictionaries can and should be better than the print version.

At Http://isizulu.net/p11n/, you can click on pronunciation samples by native speakers.

Unfortunately, as often as not, I can't even hear the differences in some sounds. For instance, the "dl" sound seems almost indistinguishable to me from the "j" sound. And I still have no idea how they make the clicks that come at the end of the alphabet.

I advised the audiobook director to tell the actor to pronounce all the clicks as "k" and figure that the audiobook listeners either won't know the difference or will understand that you can't expect an English speaker to have the oral surgery required to enable him to pronounce these words just for a single audiobook.

Di-vid-ing Words

If printed dictionaries aren't really that good a guide to pronunciation, then what are they good for?

Well, please remember, they may not be the best or most convenient for finding pronunciations or spellings, but they're way better than nothing!

And for professionals, Merriam-Webster sets the standard for word divisions. When you have to divide a word at the end of a line, where do you divide it? By the rules of syllabification, where a short vowel holds on to the following consonant, "division" should be divided "di-vis-ion."

Only it can't be, because the "s" is pronounced "zh" because of the following "i." And it would look weird to divide it "di-visi-on" because our eye would insist on seeing the third "i" as a new syllable. So Merriam-Webster settles the issue by bending the syllabification rules and dividing the word thus: "di-vi-sion."

Somebody has to make these decisions ("de-ci-sions") and Merriam-Webster is universally accepted, in the United States, as the authoritative word divider.

Then there are etymologies -- stories about where words came from. These are fascinating to anyone who is fascinated by them (which includes me), but the most interesting etymologies have a way of being unreliable. The dictionary just doesn't have room to do a real history of the words, complete with sources and conjectures.

Elevated Speech

Let's face it. We all speak a language -- our own language -- fluently. To the degree that the people we talk to can understand us, we speak correctly. People may not admire the way we talk; they may even be irritated at our pronunciations or word usages. But if we're understood, we have spoken successfully.

Beyond that, there is such a thing as "proper" speech, but it's not a matter of decency or respectability or superiority and certainly not "correctness." Rather it is a marker of our degree of education -- or at least the degree of education we wish other people to think we've achieved.

Dictionaries aren't going to give you educated speech or writing. In fact, the dictionary -- and its bratty little stepbrother, the thesaurus -- are traps for the unwary pretender who thinks that using them will help him sound more educated than he is.

Here's a good solid rule you can count on: If you learned the word only by looking it up or memorizing it from a vocabulary list, you are quite likely to use it incorrectly.

And if you first heard of a word in a thesaurus, you are doomed. Because the basic premise of the thesaurus is faulty. There are no synonyms. Period. There are only words of similar meaning.

The reason we have multiple words with the "same" meaning is because they actually carry implications and shades of meaning that are quite different from each other.

So the thesaurus is only useful to remind you of words you already know. If you have found a new word in the thesaurus, then don't you dare use it until you have looked it up in the dictionary too -- and even then you are better off waiting until you've read it a few times in written works by people who know how to use the word.

I remember when I found the words "suzerain" and "suzerainty" in the thesaurus. I thought they were way cool, but I actually misunderstood them completely. I thought they were the opposite of "sovereign" and "sovereignty", and in a way they are, but I didn't understand those words well enough to realize in what sense "suzerain" was antonymic.

Thinking of "sovereign" as being "kinglike, ruling over somebody else," I assumed that a nation ruled over by another was "suzerain" to the ruling nation. As if it were a near-synonym of "subordinate."

I used it that way in a college paper. The professor wrote in the margin, "Nice try. Next time find out what a word means before using it."

I thought I had! But I had missed it completely. Now I know that a "sovereign" nation is one that is independent of the control of other nations. And a nation has "suzerainty" over another when it controls that nation's foreign affairs, while leaving them alone to decide their own domestic policies.

Pretty much the opposite of how I had thought it worked.

My point is that if you discover words out of context, you might think you have caught the definition correctly, but it's still best to go online and google the word.

Stay away from dictionary definitions that Google might offer, though. Instead find places where writers have used them in real sentences in real articles, and see how they function in context.

You don't sound educated when you use a fancy word incorrectly. It might overawe the people who know less than you -- but it's more likely to annoy them. And the people who do know the word will either be contemptuous (if they're snobs) or sympathetic (if they remember their own missteps in the past). Neither is the impression you really wished to make.

All of this is what comes to mind when I start ruminating about Merriam-Webster. From childhood on, Merriam-Webster has been part of my life, and our relationship became even more intense when I began my professional life as a proofreader and copy editor back in the mid 1970s.

Even now, I would not be without my Collegiate Edition copy of Merriam-Webster, or the Unabridged we keep on a stand in the library. And even though the company is now owned by Encyclopedia Britannica, it's not as if that subtracts from its value.

Dictionary Games

But why did I start ruminating about Merriam-Webster? Because one of the games we got for Christmas is published by them.

A game? Published by a dictionary company?

Well, why not? Long before Balderdash became a commercial version, my friends and family would play "Dictionary," with very simple rules: Somebody opens the dictionary, chooses a word, announces it to everyone, and then they all write down made-up definitions for it and try to guess which one is real.

For years, Merriam-Webster (and any other dictionary maker) was, in effect, publishing a game -- and getting not a penny extra for it!

But now there's Befudiom, published by a dictionary company, and it has an unusual twist.

Instead of words and definitions, you're just trying to get people to say an idiomatic expression.

A dice roll tells you whether you're going to act out the phrase, draw it on paper, talk around it (by far the easiest method), or make a hangman game out of it.

Many idiomatic expressions aren't even found in the dictionary, though they're as integral a part of a language as any word. How would you even look up a phrase like "kick the bucket"? Yet we all know (or if you didn't, now you will) that "to kick the bucket" means "to die."

It's phrases like that -- "up the creek without a paddle," "pushing up daisies," "down and dirty," "on easy street," "chew the fat," "bite the bullet," "pull your leg," "chuck the monkey" -- which you're trying to get your teammates to say.

Individual words in an idiomatic expression don't give you much help in decoding the meaning. You might know what "technicolor" and "yawn" mean, but that doesn't help you figure out that a "technicolor yawn" means "vomiting."

Even though our language is thick with such idioms (as are all languages I've ever heard of), it's surprising how hard it is to get people to think of them.

Charades and its variants (like Pictionary) are relatively easy, especially when we're trying to think of the title of something. Titles get sorted in our brains in a single category, and they're relatively easy to find. Unless you're my age.

But idioms aren't filed that way. We don't have an "idiomatic expression department" in our brains. So your teammate can be acting out "have a cow" as perfectly as it can be acted -- getting you to say "cow" and then pantomiming giving birth to the thing -- but that doesn't mean that it's going to come into your head!

In short, the game is harder than you think. And kids who are too young to have learned a lot of colorful idioms are going to be at a disadvantage. The game is most fun with a large group so that the guessing can be done by many people at once and no one person has to sit there feeling like an idiot because they can't come up with a phrase that seems obvious after you've read it from the card.

We recommend it as a party game, though, having play-tested it in the house of Cards.

Meanwhile, here's our best guess at how to pronounce the game's name. We assume it's a portmanteau of "befuddle" and "idiom," which, in my opinion, was an idiotic way to construct the name. So we pronounce it with the accent on the short u: be-FUDD-ee-um.

And if you think of an idiomatic expression that isn't in their list, you can submit it to the gamemakers at http://www.befudiom.com/submitYourIdiom.aspx

My guess is that this isn't really for the game -- I think Merriam-Webster is actually soliciting addition idiomatic expressions for a future edition of a dictionary. But that's cool, too!


A few weeks ago, somebody forwarded me a photograph dating from the World War I era. It was hundreds of uniformed soldiers in a field, arranged so that they formed a Human Statue of Liberty.

I forwarded the picture to friends and family members because it was cool.

My father-in-law, James B. Allen, might be retired, but he's still a historian. He went to the Urban Legends site and found out:

"This image matches one in the U.S. National Archives credited to photographers Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas, captioned as follows: '18,000 Officers and Men at Camp Dodge, Des Moines, Iowa. Colonel William Newman, Commanding. Colonel Rush S. Wells, Directing.' The picture was taken in July 1918."

So the photo is genuine. But it's also part of a series. Urban Legends.com reports:

"'Human Statue of Liberty' was one of a series of group photographs taken by Mole and Thomas during and immediately after World War I at U.S. military training camps. Each took up to a week to compose and shoot using an 11" x 14" view camera perched atop an 80-foot tower.

"According to photography historian Louis Kaplan, these so-called 'living sculptures' served as 'rallying points to support American involvement in the war and to ward off isolationist tendencies.'"

Once my father-in-law knew that there were more photos, he had to find them. Unfortunately, the resulting link is too horribly long to type in. You can wait for the online version of this column to appear, or you can go to http://urbanlegends.about.com and search for "Human Statue of Liberty Camp Dodge," "Human U.S. Shield Camp Custer," "Human Liberty Bell Camp Dix," or "Sincerely Yours, Woodrow Wilson Camp Sherman."

It's a touch of history, and it's cool to remember that as soon as cameras existed, people started doing extraordinary things solely for them to be photographed.

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