Behind the pages of Rare Words
Books that serve up some of the language’s more uncommon words require an uncommonly qualified peer reviewer

James Girsch
James Girsch

Notes to self from a dictionary-maker:

"Ensure that glosses of tr. verbs are consistent - i.e., ‘to find (something)’ vs. ‘to find something.’

"For ex. - suborn includes ‘someone’ as object; this explicit inclusion of the object, which excludes the possibility of ‘something,’ is lacking in entries for other verbs, I think."

That’s just one of the many notes to self - and to our Rare Words authors - that Dr. James Girsch made in his role of peer reviewer for Rare Words and Rare Words II.

But how does one find such a rare wordsmith?

Long before MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and even the idea of social networking, Hallie had started an unofficial online bulletin board for her alma mater, St. John’s College.

"My college is a unique community of avid book-lovers with a deep grounding in the classics, thanks to our mandatory Great Books curriculum," explained Hallie. "Within three hours of posting to my 600-member group, the advancement officer at my college had lined up the perfect candidate: her high school friend who happened to be a lexicographer."

The friend and lexicographer was James Girsch, who told Hallie’s liaison, "You can tell Hallie that I'm well trained in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Latin, French, and German, with some Chinese in there and a little Polish too. Have picked up enough Greek to write etymologies, etc."

He was also an associate editor of the Middle English Dictionary and the senior lexicographer for the Thorndike Barnhart Dictionary series. Oh yes, and in his spare time he’d been an etymologist for the Encarta World English Dictionary.

Thus began a fruitful collaboration between Hallie and James. "His task was to review our definitions to ensure that they conformed to lexicographical standards," she said. "But in his enthusiasm for the project, he went above and beyond, making notes on interesting etymologies of words he felt should be included."

We recently asked James to tell us more about his work, and his work on Rare Words. Highlights of our conversation:

Hallie Leighton
Hallie Leighton,
co-author of the Rare Words series

Levenger Press: What was your role as lexicographical advisor to Rare Words?

James Girsch:  I simplified sometimes and clarified - for our purposes - the glosses harvested from dictionaries of all kinds - so we were able to create our own semantic divisions and present this in a clear and useful way, with the browsing reader in mind.

LP: "Glosses” meaning "definitions,” correct?

JG: Yes, they can have the same meaning. Lexicographers use "gloss,” I think, to keep the distinction from a formal definition - species, genus, differentia - clear.

LP: You’re both a dictionary editor and an etymologist, and we note on your C.V. that you actually read the complete Thorndike Barnhart Junior Dictionary when you were working on it. What’s it like to read an entire dictionary?

JG: It’s great fun and extremely absorbing. You’re trying to establish a consistent style, looking for new words that need to be included, watching carefully for glosses that require revision or correction, encountering and learning unfamiliar words, writing etymologies, and imposing what you think is a better order on the entire work.

LP: What were you looking for as you read it?

JG: First, current words whose glosses required revision to include very new senses. The stuff known as plasma, for example, was not considered a fourth state of matter in the edition of the dictionary we were revising. Thus a new sense had to be added, or the present sense under the field label physics had to be refined.

The compact disc was also new, and a new sense under disc was written and given a numbered position in the entry.

Rare Words II

An example of a completely new entry is Bose-Einstein condensate, whose existence was predicted in the 1920s but first observed in 1995; thus in 1996, that term was considered for inclusion because of its newly-achieved currency.

Second, obsolete and obsolescent words had to be deleted to make room for the new entries. I remember arguing on behalf of keeping cabriolet and being overruled by our wise managing editor, Deborah Posner. The dictionaries we are discussing here are part of a series for elementary school, middle school, and high school. There was a good argument for keeping cabriolet - it will not disappear from any Henry James novel, for example, in which it appears, and students will want to find it treated in an unabridged dictionary - but there was a better argument for taking it out.

LP: Complete this sentence: "The most surprising thing about writing a dictionary is... "

JG:The number of words that must be cut from the present edition or refused admission to the new edition. One wants to include them all, all the time - I do, anyway.

LP: You have a specialty in Middle English, having been an associate editor of the Middle English Dictionary (the MED). What period does ME cover?

JG: The conventional dates for Middle English are AD 1100 to 1500 - though they’re of course kind of arbitrary. The language of the earliest works included in the MED cannot really be distinguished from Anglo-Saxon. The earlier date is one generation after the Norman Conquest; by 1100, a significant number of words from Norman French had become naturalized - part of the English language. That explains the earlier date; the latter date is some 15 years after printing had become well-established in England.

LP: Who were some foremost writers during this period?

JG: The most prominent author in ME is Chaucer - the first great English poet. Another author who might be familiar to modern readers is John Gower, a friend of Chaucer, who wrote important works in Middle English, French, and Latin.

John Lydgate, also known to Chaucer, produced numerous works of staggering length; Lydgate was amongst the most celebrated English writers of the fifteenth century. The name of Sir Thomas Mallory (ob. 1471), author of Le Morte d’Arthur, still appears from time to time in movie credits. Much of the most significant Middle English literature is, however, anonymous.

LP: Do any ME words remain intact today?

JG: Producing a precise answer to this question grew more complicated as I thought about it. Some words that occur in the MED and survive in Present Day English morphologically have lost their Middle English semantic identity - that’s one kind of survival. A good example is algebra, which occurs in MED quotes between ca. 1300 and 1425; its ME senses are logically connected to the word’s meaning today, but that connection is not an obvious one. In the Middle English Dictionary, algebra is glossed thus: "(a) The surgical treatment of fractures and dislocations, bone-setting; (b) a fracture or dislocation.” That sense has expired - its last appearance recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1623.

LP: What came before Present Day English?

JG: Present Day English, or PDE, is the successor to Modern English, which goes back to the 17th century. Shakespeare’s English is referred to as Early Modern.

LP: What are your favorite words in Rare Words II, and why?

JG: Here are a few - like the selection of prominent ME writers, this was a difficult task:

  1. surd. Long a favorite; its Latin etymon is also the parent of absurd, and in one sense, it denotes an irrational number.
  2. haver. This brings back pleasant memories, as I worked with someone who often urged me not to haver, by which she meant hesitate, be indecisive, hang around waiting to do something. It could be a blend of hover and waver, though every dictionary I’ve seen reports that its origin is unknown.
  3. gadroon. Everyone loves words that end in oon - I think. Also, it’s an architectural term, and I should know a good share of those, but I did not know this one until I came across it while working on the book. Moreover, the etymology is interesting - it’s ultimately developed from Latin gutta, a drop (hence gutter).
  4. hircine. It’s a word that pertains to goats, and it’s a word that I will need to use sometime this spring.
  5. grume. This is a favorite because when I first encountered it some years ago, I looked it up, and during the next couple of days I saw again it five or six times in other works. That phenomenon is always intriguing.


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