You wanna speak-a like me, you gotta affix your words

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You may already know that I am like an Italian cosmetic surgeon for words. When I lived in Italy, I picked up a lot of the language. In fact, I picked it up three times a day for three weeks because it was written on all of the menus. Since I only lived there 21 days, you’d be surprised at how much I learned. Other Italian speakers are.

 

I don’t want to show off and use any more of it than I already have in the title of this post.

 

When I’m not being humble, I like to be generous. And although it is extremely difficult to be both on the same day, I’m going to attempt it.

 

Today, I want to share with you some of the intricacies of word-building, so that you, too, can affix words.

 

Let’s start with some vocabulary:

 

Base word: The lowest form of a word.*

 

Sometimes "give me a hand" is meant literally. Hard to grasp, isn't it? (courtesy: http://www.squidoo.com/polykleitos-diadoumenos)

Prefix: Pieces broken off of Greek and Latin words that go on the front of a word to help it say something. Think of them as the missing hands from all of those Greek and Roman statues. When a word is in need of  a fix, you lend it a hand.

 

Suffix: More broken word parts, but these are placed on a base word’s backend. (NOTE: This requires the utmost delicacy or the word will say something you weren’t expecting.)

 

But first, let’s clear up a potential source of controversy: Why do I call the base word the lowest form of a word? One word: Samuel Johnson. In 1755, he published a dictionary, unexpectedly called A Dictionary of the English Language. He took nine years to define, research the origin, and give examples for the 42,773 words in the dictionary. In this scholarly work, he included some clever definitions, such as:

 

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

To worm: To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.

How can you not love a man who puts things like that in a dictionary? And what’s not to like about someone who calls himself a harmless drudge? Yes, I know that Ambrose Bierce published his witty definitions of words in The Cynic’s Word Book, later retitled The Devil’s Dictionary, but Johnson sprinkled his wit into a dictionary that was the standard for the English language until the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) came along and started showing off. Just as computer geeks plant easter eggs in programs, Johnson planted surprises in the dictionary to delight word lovers.

 

Samuel Johnson said, "A man seldom thinks with more earnestness of anything than he does of his dinner." (Portrait from National Portrait Gallery London)

For reasons not yet revealed to me, I am obsessed with Samuel Johnson, his work, and his remark about puns as the lowest form of humor. With that in mind, consider: Johnson compiled a dictionary full of base words. From these words he created jokes. Ergo, ipso facto, base words themselves are the lowest form of words.

 

If you are like most people, that will not make perfectly good sense to you, but I’m hoping that you are not like most people. You are, after all, reading this blog.

 

And now, you must accept my humble apologies. Two hours of humility is my limit; it has exhausted me. I must spend some time thinking about dinner.  Tomorrow I will be generous and teach you how to affix words.

31 thoughts on “You wanna speak-a like me, you gotta affix your words

  1. I hope you enjoyed your dinner. I never knew that Samuel Johnson spent so long compiling his dictionary. I must have been daydreaming when he was up for discussion in class (daydreaming was my best subject at school) although I do have a vague memory that he spent a lot of time in coffee houses or was that someone else?

    • From what I’ve read, he liked taverns and pubs, but I imagine he would have frequented coffee houses as well. Most of what I learned in high school I have forgotten, as well as a great deal of what I learned in college.

    • Well, Noah came after Johnson and it’s possible he used Johnson’s dictionary as a resource, since it was the standard at the time. But we have Webster to thank for the Americanized spelling and the introduction of so many new words.

      • Matthew

        I like to imagine them as bitter rivals: Johnson a hulking mound of foppish tics, and Webster an insecure contemporary who flies into a rage whenever someone mentions Johnson’s name.

        It is great fun that way, at least in my head.

        • I like your imagination.

          And I like to have fun inside my head, too. There’s a lot of empty space to bounce around my ideas. I try to play quietly so as not to disturb the people around me.

  2. Bardak

    Terrific stuff!

    But one thing I couldn’t work out was what Johnson’s definition of “to worm” means:

    To worm: To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.

    Could anyone here explain?

    • I don’t think even Johnson could explain it. He seems to be saying that by removing something under a dog’s tongue you prevent it from going mad. But he probably didn’t know or couldn’t get a straight answer, so he wrote that tongue in cheek definition.

      The vast majority of his definitions were correct, but for the word “pastern” (the two bones of a horse’s leg above the hoof) he put the definition as a horse’s knee. Someone asked why he wrote that and he reportedly said, “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.” He seems to have had a good sense of humor.

    • No need to sigh. We are all foreigners. I lived overseas most of my adult life as a perpetual foreigner making funny language mistakes and providing people of all ages amusing stories to remember about the things I did and said. My gifts to them.

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