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1:51pm on Sunday, 15th January, 2006:

Horse, hors, n.


My mother has a copy of Everybody's Pocket Dictionary, a delightful book published gawd-knows-when but probably about 1945 plus or minus a decade. It's delightful because it has to be the most useless dictionary I've ever read.

Here's the definition for horse:

Ah, that's sure to help people who know what a quadruped is but who don't know what a horse is.

Of course, you can always look up Quadruped and discover it's "an animal having four feet".This doesn't always work, though: if you were to read the definition for Hopeless and discover it meant "without hope", you couldn't follow through to see what Hope meant because it's not in the dictionary. Likewise, False is "not true", but True is not there. This happens on virtually every page. Bullock is "an ox", but Ox, well, I guess everyone just knows what an ox is (although I wouldn't have said a bullock was one...).

Some definitions are satisfyingly circular. Heathen: "a pagan". Pagan: "a heathen". Others are also mutually recursive but not quite exactly so. Haven: "a harbour". Harbour: "a haven for ships". I could spend hours reading this stuff; I find it utterly glorious.

There are some breath-taking ommisions. We have Blue: "one of the primary colours", but no Red; we have Woman: "an adult female", but no Man; we have North: "the point opposite the south", but no South. Niether Cat nor Dog feature (although Cat's-paw and Dogged are there).

Some more animals:
Bison: "a quadruped of the bovine kind".
Lion: "a quadruped remarkable for its loud roar".
Leopard: "a spotted quadruped".
Elephant: "the largest of quadrupeds".
Mammoth: "a quadruped".
I'm sensing a pattern here...

Some words seem to have gone out of fashion. Twicer: "one who attends public worship twice on Sunday". Others seem to have changed meaning. Matrix: "the womb". Others look suspiciously as if they never did mean what they're purported to mean. Closet: "a private apartment".

Not all the definitions are reduced to half a dozen words, but that doesn't mean these are any less cockeyed.
International:"a. existing between nations; n. a second organization of socialists of all countries founded in 1889 as a successir to the first International — a rival organisation (third International) operating from Moscow since 1919."

I love the way it manages to spell "organisation" two different ways in the same sentence, there.

Unsurprisingly, there are inconsistencies in the definitions themselves: East is "the quarter where the sun rises", but West is "the point where the sun sets". Points, quarters, they're obviously the same thing (and, as neither of them is defined in the book's 256 pages, who is to say otherwise?).

Definitions are decidedly one way. Yes, it's true that a Jersey is "a garment of wool", but not all garments of wool are jerseys. This means you can get words with the same definition: Privet and Myrtle are both "a shrub" (which in turn is "a bush", which in turn is "a shrub; a bough").

There are also some syntactical ambiguities. The definition for Jumper is "a woman's blouse or jersey". Does that mean "(a woman's blouse) or (jersey)" or "a woman's (blouse or jersey)"? And what's this with the blouse ("a light, loose coat") thing anyway? Am I rediscovering lost meanings for words, or misapprehensions on the part of the dictionary's compiler?

Cowpox: "the vaccine disease". Oh, yes, that cowpox...

Incompleteness is another trend. Pine is "to languish" — there's no reference to its being a kind of tree. Seal is only "to confirm", there's no sign it could be a noun (sea animal or device of closure — gaah, I'm talking like the dictionary now).

Some words have no definitions! Really! There are several a page. You get told that Abhorrence is a noun, pronounced "ab-hor'rens", but no indication of its meaning. I guess you're supposed to figure out it derives from Abhor and look that up instead, but that doesn't help with words such as Clerical (given that Cleric is a no-show).

Other entries incorporate the word itself into the definition. Sort of. It's hard to explain what I mean, so here are a couple of examples:
Deer: "its flesh used for venison".
Mammal: "suckles its young"

All in all, it's a wondrous, magical source of fun for the entire family.

And just in case you think I've made this all up, there's a copy for sale in an Australian antiquarian bookshop.

Referenced by Everybody's Pocket Dictionary.

Referenced by Not Quite Everybody's.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).