Saturday, 22 August 2009

Twittering the Dictionary


I am a writer. Words are my trade. These two facts are self-evident. But I am also a hoarder, a ferreter-out, a collector of the strange, exotic, ancient and arcane--at least as far as vocabulary is concerned. Every time I use a dictionary for its everyday purpose of checking a spelling or meaning, I get sidetracked by the many magnificent verbal treasures to be found on any one spread. The two most useful presents I have ever received have been dictionaries--one, a blue-and-gold leather bound edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary was an unusual wedding present which still lives in its original slipcase, smelling of twenty years of knowledge searching, the gold-leaf on the very tips of its delicate pages worn silver with thumbing. The other, a Chambers 20th Century, I was given as a leaving gift when I departed my life as an editor with Orchard Books. It sits to the left of my computer and is entirely invaluable to my writing life.

I love to know about and explore the sources of words--are they from High German, or Latin, or Greek? Might they be from another language altogether (like Amharic or Ashanti), and somehow, somewhere have slipped into English usage by the route of trade or fleeting fashion or simple lexical stealing? I love the moment where the meaning of a word suddenly makes sense when I see it broken down into its component parts--it's there in plain sight but I never thought of it in that way before.

There are many quiet pleasures to be had from brief browsings of a dictionary, but one thing I have never done is to read an entire one from cover to cover--until now. It all started with Twitter really. After all, what does Twitter really do apart from tell the world what Stephen Fry had for breakfast? Or what t-shirt Neil Gaiman wore last night? Or many other less interesting (I don't like to use the word boring) daily ephemera. I realise that in our celebrity-obsessed world these are things which many people like to know about. However, I wanted to try something different. Something which would be (perhaps) both educational and interesting not only for my Twitter followers, but also for me. What could I do?

The answer was sitting right under my elbow. Starting at A, I would work my way through the entire dictionary, tweeting the interesting words and definitions I found in 140 characters. Originally I planned to do this over 24 weeks (combining w and x and y and z), but I now know it's going to take a lot longer than that. Two weeks in, I have reached al-, and there's still a long way to go (60 pages) before I reach B, and I don't want to rush it. After all, I do have other (and bigger) writing projects to get on with.

Not everyone is on Twitter (or indeed any other social network), so I've decided to do a weekly roundup of interesting words here on the blog too. I'll be starting with the 'A's so far' on Monday. Have fun reading them. I hope you find a word or two that you like, (and maybe you'll even come up with some more of your own favourites that you think I should have put in). Let me know! All suggestions welcome.
 
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