Who wouldn't give a **** for a dictionary?

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Words can be a rich source of end-of-term amusement, as well as an indispensable reference, says a joyfully uncensored Laurence Alster

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo By James McDonald. The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words By Paul Hellweg. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Anagrams By Michael Curl. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Difficult Words Compiled by Robert H Hill. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Film Quotations Compiled and edited by Tony Crawley.

The Devil's Dictionary. By Ambrose Bierce. Pounds 2.50 each from Wordsworth Editions Cumberland House, Crib Street, Ware, Herts SG12 9ET. Tel: 01920 465167

Stand 88

Attempts to get students interested in words usually elicit a response as practised as it is predictable. As well as the obligatory displays of exasperation and apparently terminal despair.

Teachers should not be put off, however, but turn instead to several cheap but potentially indispensable reference books from Words-worth Editions, a publisher specialising in cut-price paperbacks. These will guarantee some amusing, occasionally risky but always instructive end-of-term sessions.

Most of the risk, in fact, comes from James McDonald's predictably dodgy Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo. All commonplace curses rate a mention here, many of them rather apologetically illustrated by reference to extracts from Shakespeare. So, apart from those oaths and epithets that would turn the rest of this line into a procession of asterisks, we get frig, dick, cock, cack and shag. Lots to ponder here, not least why "shag" has suddenly become acceptable (where would the Have I Got News For You? teams be without it?), let alone why students have recently picked up "cack" as a routine pejorative.

McDonald reveals that "crap", the traditional equivalent, has long been wrongly linked to Thomas Crapper, the purported inventor of the flush lavatory. Along with such as Braille, dunce and condom, Mr Crapper turns up in the eponym section of Paul Hullweg's marvellous Book of Intriguing Words, here sub-titled The Insomniac's Dictionary of the Outrageous, Odd and Unusual. This should keep classes awake and amused for hours. Under collective nouns, for example, we find a murder of crows, a smack of jellyfish and a business of ferrets - a great basis for inventing your own (A done of teachers? A creep of candidates?). Or, included in a "Pantophobes' (someone afraid of everything) Glossary", bromidrosiphobia (fear of body odour), selaphobia (of flashes) and, amazingly, arachibutyrophobia, "fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth".

Strange to think that someone, somewhere, must have shown these symptoms for such words to have been invented. And there are so many others, arguably the best of all being gynotikolobomassophile - "someone who likes to nibble on a woman's earlobe". Not so much a neurosis as a technique, perhaps. On (arguably) more normal ground, "Organisation Names" offers acronyms like SCOOP (Stop Crapping On Our Pavements, an American anti-doggy dos group) and NOSE (Neighbours Opposing Smelly Emissions).

Again, invent your own is the idea, one of many excellent word games suggested by Hellweg. Teachers wishing to play another, "Creating Anagrams", will find plenty of examples in Michael Curl's Dictionary of Difficult Words, some specimens simply begging to be used in classroom versions of Call My Bluff. Cachalot, for example; a board game? Nice try, but nowhere near; it means having a nice bum.

If individual words are fascinating, combined they can be momentous. Properly used, a good quote can seem less a case of picking other people's flowers than of lending conversation additional weight and colour. Alas, the weeds in Tony Crawley's Dictionary of Film Quotations far outnumber the blossoms, with only a handful from hundreds likely to be of any real use in the classroom or elsewhere. For an example of fine judgment, though,one might invoke Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Paul Verhoeven (director, Basic Instinct and Showgirls) is very intense. At any moment he could blow up beyond belief. This is the behaviour of a genius kinda guy", and a useful insight into stardom stress comes from the gargantuan cross-dressing actor,Divine, in 1985: "Okay, I'm not Doris Day, but I'm getting there."

Far better to go back to the old standards, in this case poetry and prose by such as Pobeter Dunk, Jamrach Holobom and Naramy Oof. All are pseudonyms of the peerless Ambrose Bierce, whose Devil's Dictionary, a collection of mordant and ironic definitions, was first published in 1906. Best for more advanced students of English, the worth of Bierce's apercus can be judged by the frequency with which they still turn up. A couple give the flavour: "Friendship, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul"; "Dice, n. Small polka-dotted cubes of ivory, constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly on the wrong one".

There are hundreds, many with hilarious nonsense verse. A joy from first to last - and not a **** in sight.

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