Monday, February 23, 2015

Merriam-Webster to the rescue

Yesterday afternoon I carefully positioned myself on the couch with a paperback mystery by the prolific writer Michael Innes

Almost immediately I saw that Innes was the sort of writer who I really enjoy reading. I like the words he chooses and the descriptive way he constructs his phrases and sentences.
Something long, pale and flattened had appeared against the window, like the under-belly of a sea-slug sucked hard against the side of an aquarium. Slightly above and to either side of this were what might have been two writhing caterpillars of the furry sort, and below each of these was a faint but baleful gleam of fire. The whole, in fact, was a human face engaged in some act of reconnaissance, and a moment later the door was thrown open and its owner heaved himself violently into the compartment….
But before I was a very few pages into the book, I started coming across words that were a puzzlement -- I had no idea what they meant or only a vague idea…
  • assize
  • hebdomadal
  • catholic (little “c” not Catholic)
  • Ruritania
  • breviary
  • otiose
Sometimes when that happens, I assign a meaning that seems to fit the context of the sentence and plow on. I do it all the time with words and phrases I see in the medical manuscripts I edit, but in that case I really don’t need to understand what I am reading, just that it makes grammatical sense.

And to chase a bit of a rabbit here, one of the few classes I remember from junior high (some 50+ years ago now!!) was an English class taught by Mrs Brewster. Oh my. She was an elegant, immaculately groomed woman who wore a subtle but wonderful perfume. I think now she was a great role model for impressionable and squirrley junior high school girls. We were learning the parts of speech, and she was teaching us how to diagram sentences (using the Reed-Kellogg system in case you have no clue and just have to look this up). She then handed us Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, which starts off…

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe. 

And told us to have at it. We had no idea what most of the words meant, but discovered it was quite possible to diagram the sentence and do it correctly.

Where was I. Oh yeah.

Having decided that I really wanted to know what these strange words actually meant rather than just guess, and because the computer stays off on Sunday, I grabbed my trusty Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh Edition, which has seen better days and is held together by duct tape. All the words were there, and knowing what they actually meant made much more sense than what I was guessing they meant.

I only have the one Michael Innes mystery, which I believe I swept off the shelf as part of a “$1 a bag sale” at the thrift store. I am not likely to find any more at the thrift store (this one was written in 1945), so I have a feeling I may be visiting the library before too long to see if they have any of his available for checking out.


Linda Kay said...

It's so easy to skip over those words assuming we know, but what a good idea to stop and look them up. After all the writer had an intent by using them.

Marty Damon said...

Hi Leilani - I just wandered over from another blog and am glad I did. I believe I'll scout out some Innes books at my local library!

Maggie May said...

I quite often look up the words in my dictionary and find that it's good to learn new ones when I read a book.
Will look for books by Innes.
Maggie x