Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"He’s a sleekit wee bastard": A meditation on a mystery, a dictionary, and the mysteries of dictionaries

My biggest surprise reading Tony Black's Gutted last week was that the dictionary built into my e-reader defines thrawn*, but not sleekit, gadgie, pagger, or other words apt to be unfamiliar to readers outside the British Isles and Ireland.

Not that the words threw me; I'd come across some of them in my reading (William McIlvanney, Adrian McKinty, Gerard Brennan, et al.), and I knew others thanks to Hamish Imlach and a visit of my own to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Besides, I like encountering new words, creatively and skillfully used. I like the challenge of figuring out, by context, what a word means. I am not, that is, part of the Grammar Girl generation — or, rather, the Grammar Girl market.

But why thrawn and not cludgie? Do the lexicographers think American readers need the former defined for them, but not the latter? (I'll be back to complete this post after a visit to the can.)

Have you even been surprised, readers, by what a dictionary included or left out?
* thrawn adj. SCOTTISH perverse; ill-tempered: your mother's looking a bit thrawn this morning. twisted; crooked: a slightly thrawn neck. late Middle English: Scots form of thrown (see THROW), in the obsolete sense 'twisted, wrung'.
 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Unknown said...

I have a soft spot in my heart and mind for the OED. Is there any better English language dictionary?

August 13, 2014  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Funny you should bring this up. I rarely ever use the dictionary function on my Kindle, but just last night I used it for "alpenstock"—and immediately felt like I should should have reasoned it out.

August 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

RT, I used to dream of having an unabridged, full-size OED on my desk. The prospect is still attractive.

My e-reader happens to include the Oxford American Dictionary. This set me to wondering how much new research the lexicographers did for such a dictionary, and how much they used or built on what was there in other, previous Oxford dictionaries.

August 14, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, no one in the corporate-data-industrial complex wants you to reason anything out. Amazapplebook wants you to have to rely on their programs for everything. Or, as an advertising campaign might put it, "Leave the (legacy_ details to us. Free your mins to ... shop for the next upgraded version."

August 14, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anther example from modern Scottish writers: Ian Rankin.

As for Irish writers, even the splendid OED has a weak spot when it comes to Hiberno English meanings of common English words and phrases ("the minerals" that one imbibes in a pub as opposed to mere "minerals"), synonyms ("the Park", as an equivalent to "the White House"), many English dictionaries don't give spellings of common words such as "wogeous" or don't understand Irish products, food and drink etc (anyone for a "red lemonade"?), and all this doesn't even touch upon all the loanwords from Irish or other languages ("grá" or "goo" - spellcheckers would try to correct a phrase such as "to have a goo for").

August 14, 2014  
Anonymous Liz said...

Have you read The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault?

August 14, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Melhealy: l learned about red lemonade (and brown lemonade as well, if my memory serves me well) after my first trip to Ireland. It's been a while since I've read Rankin, but I don't remember his novels being as packed with dialect and slang as this book of Tony Black's. Black reminds me a bit of Charlie Williams in that way, though I have the idea that contemporary Scottish crime writers have used slang and dialect as part of their setting more than English and Irish ones.

As for Hiberno and Scottish English, the language is growing, and the lexicographical staffs of the big dictionaries will have to grow along with it if they want to keep up.

I had not known grá had found its way into English. I knew what it meant because I looked it up after Ken Bruen signed a book for me with “grá mor.” But my dialect story was that a friend in Belfast was giving me directions over the phone that included “follow the footpath.” I thought, “I’m in an unfamiliar city; I don’t want to start following narrow paths through woods. I’ll just take the bus.” Only later did I remember that “footpath” meant what I would call “sidewalk.” .

August 14, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Liz, I don't know that book, but I just found a description that calls its protagonists two young lexicographers. This naturally piqued my interest.

Years ago I visited with the lexicographical staff at Merriam Webster for some newspaper articles I wrote. They were an interesting gang of eccentrics, and I wonder how the advent of the Internet has affected their methods. Part of their jobs was simply to read a vast array of publications on the lookout for new usages. I imagine they surf the Internet these days, and the uncertain literacy of what the find, along with the idiotic hostility toward "gatekeepers," must make their jobs more difficult.

August 14, 2014  

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