2013

Why read dictionaries?

Lauren Ziegler 

One of a journalist’s first lessons is about simplicity. No overly fancy words, no grandiose phrases, no convoluted sentences.

Two men on whom such advice is clearly lost are self-professed “word detectives” David Astle and Mark Forsyth. For one hour, the two dictionary lovers took their audience on a fascinating journey through the “mystery of etymology,” chasing words in dictionaries around the world, throughout the ages.

Mark is based in London and is known online as The Inky Fool. “I’ve always been obsessed with dictionaries. I was given a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary as a christening present, and I’ve never recovered.”  David is also known as DA, writer of cryptic crosswords for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

In one hour, they covered history, politics, culture and religion, with tales of ancient slang dictionaries and many references to drinking and getting drunk. One of their favourite synonyms from the unlikely Drinker’s Dictionary by Benjamin Franklin – “Sir Richard has taken off his considering cap” – went down particularly well with the audience.

David Astle

David Astle

Riveting and entertaining, their session at times resembled a stand-up comedy routine. “’Located’ drives me mad. On flights they say, ‘Your life jacket is located under your seat.’ You don’t need the word there, it’s not doing anything! They also say, ‘Please take all your personal belongings off the plane.’ But, what about my impersonal belongings?” said Mark.

Were they worried about new technologies threatening the English language? Forsyth, who grew up in the 1980s, was optimistic. “Today it’s all text messages, emails, tweeting and Facebook. The written word has really come back. I think it’s wonderful, it’s improving the language an awful lot.”

The men discussed the evolution of language. One of Mark’s favourite older words was ‘sprunt,’ a Scottish term meaning “to chase girls around amongst the haystacks after dark.” He marvelled that the activity was once so common, it required such a descriptive word.

As unused words fade, new ones take their place. “Ten or 15 years ago, if I’d said ‘Oh, there’s a troll on the internet who keeps sending me spam,’ you’d have kept me talking while someone ran off to get the big net.”

“Why Read Dictionaries?” indeed. By the end of Mark and David’s fascinating session, it seemed the most interesting, enjoyable pursuit in the world.

Mark Forsyth

Mark Forsyth

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