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1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Alice in Wonderland and Samuel Johnson

It will soon be my birthday. Birthdays, in general, get less and less fun as you get older. Mine stopped being much fun a very long time ago – around the time that people stopped buying me presents I wanted and started buying me presents I needed – most often shirts. Normally I can at least have the day off work. I'm a teacher and most years my birthday sits comfortably in the middle of the Easter break. This year, because Easter is so early (or put more simply), I'll be back at work by the time the day rolls round. I don't suppose it will make very much difference – apart from the obligatory purchase of cakes for the staff room.

Last year, though, was different. It was in some ways like being a kid again. I wasn't in England, I was in America for the second annual wordcraft convention in Chicago – an event far less grandiose and far more companionable than the title might suggest. I spent the evening in a bar drinking the various ales produced by the Goose Island brewery and unwrapping the best array of birthday presents I'd had in years.

Now if I list them I'm going to sound as if I should be locked up. After all I have already indicated that I am not in the first flush of youth – to be precise I was fifty last year. A fifty year old man shouldn't really be talking about how much he enjoyed receiving, for example, an Alice in Wonderland Pop-Up book, should he? On the other hand I do have a rather large collection of Alice in Wonderland books that I have been building for many years now and the Pop-Up book in question was the one by Jotto Seibold which not only has complex and well engineered pop-up illustrations but also has a unique modernist take on its humour.

That was actually the second present that I unwrapped – the first being a set of fluffy white bunny rabbit ears. When you've had a few drinks you don't mind being photographed wearing such an item. There exists a set of photographs of all those present – me included – wearing them. I hope they are locked away in a secret vault somewhere.

Another Alice item was a cup and saucer which was unusual in not being a Disney item but rather being from Cardew Design NA Inc.

Not all my presents were Wonderland related though. One of the parcels turned out to contain a book of selections from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. Given that we were ostensibly there at a convention celebrating the English Language this was rather apt.

As the preface to the book explains Johnson's Dictionary wasn't the first, wasn't the most up-to-date or the most comprehensive and wasn't the most accurate dictionary. And of course no one would sit and read a dictionary for fun, would they? That would be absurd. Absurd indeed, nonetheless it is a great book to dip into and pull out random gems. Here is half an alphabet of words that have taken my fancy. Some of them, such as abbey-lubber, just seem to be splendidly useless, others seem to be so useful that I may start reintroducing them in my own conversation. Some I just like for no particular reason.

abbey-lubber: A slothful loiterer in a religious house, under pretence of retirement and austerity.
(can there be many words that would be more useless in the modern world?)

botryoid: having the shape of a bunch of grapes
(I can think of piles of circumstances where that might be useful.)

cackerel: a fish, said to make those who eat it laxative
(I just love that definition, it seems so apt.)

discalceation: the act of pulling off the shoes
(never heard that before but I think I'll start using it.)

eame: Uncle: a word still used in the wilder parts of Staffordshire
(I live in Wolverhampton. I just love that "wilder parts of Staffordshire" comment.)

fescue: a small wire by which those who teach to read point out the letters
(I have no idea what this is but as an English teacher I want one..)

grammaticaster:a mean verbal pedant, a low grammarian
(Plenty of these around on the internet.)

humicubation: the act of lying on the ground
(Seen frequently outside pubs at closing time.)

ignivomous: vomiting fire
(Interesting mainly because a few pages earlier we also have flammivomous meaning "vomiting out flame". Just how many words for this concept did they need?)

jegget: a kind of sausage
(A definite touch of the Baldricks to that one!)

to kemb [now written perhaps less properly, to comb] to separate or disentangle by a denticulated instrument.
(Don't you love that definition?)

liplabour: action of the lips without concurrence of the mind
(Ah, the customary mode of speech of a politician then.)

to moble: to dress grossly or inelegantly
(I must try this one out "Why are you mobling tonight?")

The dictionary includes examples and etymologies (some of which are quite ludicrously wrong, good for a laugh though.) I'd recommend it is a thumping good read for linguaphiles. Sometime soon I'll pick a few favourites out from N-Z.

Anyway, as I said, my birthday has now rolled round again and this time being both back home in England and working I expect that I'll get a card from my Dad and maybe one from my brother. As for presents, well I think I'll have to buy those for myself. I may be sure of getting something I want but it isn't half as much fun as getting presents from other people. Perhaps I should considering retiring to a monastery and becoming an abbey-lubber. (I knew I could work it in, if I tried!)


Anonymous said...



Cat said...

I think you should dust off the bunny ears and head for a pub! Happy birthday, my friend. I will miss you at this year's gathering.