Thursday, September 25, 2003

Sure, the dictionary got 'phat,' but it also trimmed the fat. Let's shed a tear for forgotten pieces of our language.
And there goes your last hope of learning what 'snollygoster' means. Pity.
David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback


When the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary came out in July, the publisher and the media mostly stressed the 10,000 newly added words and senses. "Phat," especially, came in for a lot of attention, as did "Frankenfood" and "cheesed off." What got hardly any attention were the evicted words -- the fat that got trimmed to make room for "phat." According to Karen Wilkinson, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster's offices in Springfield, Mass., a list of such words would run into the hundreds.

Of course, if Merriam-Webster didn't show a few hundred words the door every 10 years or so, there would be no room for all the new words coming down the pike. But let us just the same consider the unmarked graves of the words that Merriam-Webster's 11th has so unceremoniously whacked, and perhaps suggest a way that mourners might light a candle for their resurrection.

Among these ghost words, the most unjustly cashiered may well be "snollygoster." A snollygoster is . . . a snollygoster is . . . actually, without a previous edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary handy, there's no telling anymore what a snollygoster is. Luckily -- and here's a phrase that must give every last lexicographer at Merriam-Webster the fantods - - that's what Google's for. Thanks to Google, somebody named Michael Quinion at would have us all know that a snollygoster is "a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician." Now there's a word that's outlived its usefulness, you bet.

But before anybody gets too high and mighty about Merriam-Webster's excommunication of snollygoster, it probably bears repeating that languages are living things, not museum pieces. Dictionaries are snapshots from life, not idealized friezes.

This goes for Merriam-Webster's new desk reference just as it did for the first major English dictionary, Samuel Johnson's, in 1755. That year of Johnson's presumptuous task, by the way, is so momentous in the annals of lexicography that Merriam-Webster still uses it to demarcate "obsolete" words from merely "archaic" ones.

A fine new condensed version of Johnson's dictionary has just come out from Walker/Levenger, and it still rewards browsing far more than any other dictionary on the market. Snollygoster isn't in it, but "abligurition ("a prodigal spending on meat and drink") and 3,100 other selections are -- including many now-unfamiliar victims of Merriam-Webster's previous thinnings of the herd.

This time around, according to Merriam-Webster's Wilkinson, the 11th edition bounced not just snollygoster but also microcopy, microreader, microreproduction, record changer, portapak, pantdress, pocket-handkerchief, poke bonnet, vitamin G, lantern pinion, frutescent, impudicity, wool stapler, long play, retirant, sheep-dip, ten-cent store and traffic manager. A few hundred more, too, but nobody keeps a special list.

Why were these poor, preterite words shown the door, while countless others lived to define another day? It all has to do with the 15 million citations thus far cribbed by Merriam-Webster's faithful scriveners. Electronically and by hand, these lexicographers spend hours "pluck[ing] a few words from the multitudes rushing toward the Void of forgetfulness," as Thomas Pynchon has James Boswell say in "Mason & Dixon." If a word goes too many years without getting plucked for any citations -- falls out of usage, that is, even from historical novels -- it, too, could wake up snollygostered.

Hard to believe that even a fuddy-duddy could work up much indignation over the ouster of vitamin G, now that pretty much everybody calls it riboflavin. But more than a few folks are bound to miss a lovely mouthful like "frutescent, " which means "having or approaching the habit or appearance of a shrub."

There is, mercifully, a court of appeal for these and other condemned words.

Use a word often enough in print (Merriam-Webster hasn't yet got the hang of tracking radio and television citations, let alone untranscribed conversation),

and the same cruel statistics that doomed a word can just as easily resurrect it. According to Wilkinson, it's already worked for "wheatgrass," which is enjoying a second flowering thanks to a new generation of healthy eaters. As in muscle tone, so in vocabulary: Use it or lose it. Failing that, work extra hard to bring it back.

But there's a catch. Ask Wilkinson which publications (other than books) Merriam-Webster sifts for all those life-giving citations, and here are the sample titles she comes up with: the New York Times, the New Yorker, Newsweek, People, Air & Space, Better Homes and Gardens, Cats, Consumer Reports, Yoga Journal, Discover, Harper's, Library Journal, National Geographic, the New England Journal of Medicine, PC Magazine, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, Time, TV Guide, Vanity Fair and Vogue, and Chocolatier.

Yes, come the 12th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 2014, these are the publications by whose choices about usage all English words will live or die. Not to be a broken record here -- and how much longer does that expression have to live? -- but how many of those titles are edited west of the Mississippi, or even the Hudson? Could it finally be time for a Dictionary of the West, as different from its Yankee predecessors as Noah Webster's first American dictionary in 1806 was from Samuel Johnson's?

Harry Truman might have thought so. A Midwestern master of American English who lived most of his life west of the Hudson, Truman supposedly numbered among the last to use the word "snollygoster" freely. This raises an uncomfortable question for Merriam-Webster: How are those of us dedicated to the biodiversity of language ever going to save the snollygoster from extinction when regional pockets like Truman's Missouri, where the word thrived -- and may still thrive, for all Massachusetts knows -- tend not to write for, or get quoted in, or even subscribe to, the New York Times?

Let alone Chocolatier.

The Internet lexicographer Quinion adds one final postscript to the arcane saga of the snollygoster: "The origin is unknown, though the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it may be linked to snallygoster, which some suppose to derive from the German schnelle Geister, literally a fast-moving ghost, and which was a mythical monster of vast size -- half reptile, half bird . . ."

So Merriam-Webster's fine dictionary may still earn a place on the reference shelves at most publications, including this one, but the snollygoster may yet have its revenge. If some day a shadow should fall across the window-facing desks at Merriam-Webster, and a cry, somewhere between a reptilian snorting and a screech, pierce the sky, well . . . they can't say they weren't warned. If those lexicographers are smart, they have 10 years to find an excuse to mollify the snollygoster in time for the next edition. It doesn't sound like anything you want to get cheesed off.

E-mail David Kipen at

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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