National Dictionary Day honors Noah Webster, Father of the American Dictionary, who was born on October 16, 1758. In appreciation of Mr. Webster’s work, we present a few that make nice choices, if you’re looking for a dictionary that’s out-of-the ordinary, contrary—maybe even scary.
A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American by Eric Partridge
The lengthy sub-title to this entertaining volume by word expert Partridge is: “Convicts, Racketeers, Criminals, Crooks, Beggars, Tramps, Commercial Underworld, White Slave Traffic, Drug Traffic, Spivs.” That would appear to about cover the underworld, but I’m no expert. (By the way, a spiv is a “petty crook who will turn his hand to anything so long as it does not involve honest work.” I think I am acquainted with a spiv or two.)
Drop any of these underworldly references to shock and impress your goody-goody friends:
- Rum mizzler—“a fellow who is clever in making his escape”
- Belly-robber—“a prison officer working in the kitchen”
- Dead lurker—“one who steals coats and umbrellas from passages on Sunday afternoons”
The Dictionary of Anagrams by Samuel C. Hunter
An anagram is a word, phrase or sentence that, when it’s scrambled, comprises the same letters as a different word, phrase, or sentence. I like this dictionary because when I doodle during important meetings I often make anagrams of the words in my notes. I also like it because there’s an anagram of its title and author used as the front cover blurb: “Racy tome used in broaching many a hard test (anag.).” OK, it’s a stretch, but it was a nice idea.
The dictionary features one-word anagrams, from five-letter words to thirteen-letter words. (Sadly, these days one can just use an online anagram finder to get an instant list, but where’s the fun in that?)
Impressive—but not permissive—anagrams from the book:
- In the word earthling you can find haltering, heartling, and lathering.
- Out of despair you may, of course, get diapers, but also praised and aspired.
- And who’da thought that a scrambled Australian gets saturnalia?
Surfin’ary: A Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak compiled by Trevor Cralle
Even if you live a thousand miles from any beach and are a hopeless ho-dad (a surfer wannabe) or gremmie (“an objectionable nonsurfer who hangs around with surfers and tries to act like them”), this book could come in handy.
Surfin’ words ‘n’ phrases that’ll get you in with the amped-and-stoked crowd, dude:
- Take gas—“to have trouble, especially the kind that leads to a wipeout”
- Geeklified—“behaving poorly at the beach”
- Yummy yellow—“a shark’s favorite color of wetsuit”
1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence
My 1971 paperback edition of this book is unabridged from the original edition published 160 years before. It’s handy for finding out the long-ago origins of those words you may use when you stub your toe, but it also is a cornucopia of words that once may have offended and embarrassed but now may just amuse or confuse.
Fun words and phrases to find some way to work into conversation:
- Lathy wench (a girl almost as slender as a lath): “Say, you’re a lathy wench. Come here often?”
- Wrapt up in warm flannel (drunk with spirituous liquors): “I missed the PTA meeting because I was wrapt up in warm flannel—if you know what I mean.”
- Booty (cheating play, where the player avoids winning): “Now, when we’re playing crazy eights, don’t try any of that booty stuff.”