Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A is for Ab Initio

To tell this story ab initio (from the beginning) I have to take you back to the time before I first went to school. I wanted to be an abecedarian. Of course, I didn't know that word back then. I just kept asking my mother when they would teach me the alphabet. When would I learn to read?

Words became my life. Thirty or more years ago, I began to study words on a systematic basis, writing down definitions and etymologies, not only of unfamiliar words but of familiar words for which I could not give a quick definition and derivation.

I guess it had to come to this eventually.

I am reading the dictionary!

Some will find that funny.

It's probably more accurate to say I'm studying the dictionary, perusing the dictionary, skimming some parts, focusing on others.

The idea may have grown from a book my niece gave me called The Know-It-All, One Man's Humble Quest to be the Smartest Person in the World. This guy set out to read the Encyclopedia Britannica in an attempt to prepare for a possible appearance on Jeopardy. He then wrote a book highlighting various interesting things he had learned on his quest.

Much of my life has revolved around learning words, looking up words, researching words, studying words. I thought: Why not do it in a systematic way? Why not start at the beginning and go to the end, from Alef to Tav, from soup to nuts, ab initio to finis?

So yesterday I started. I will be looking for unusual words, interesting words. I will of course be looking at etymologies, which are my passion. I will be highlighting the many different languages from which English derives.

I have chosen The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as my text, for a number of reasons. For one thing, I am most familiar with this dictionary. It has been my constant companion for many years. I like that it is more prescriptive than other dictionaries. In others words, it does not immediately acquiesce to popular usage. No matter how many people say "ain't," for example, it still considers the locution "nonstandard." That noxious pronunciation of nuclear popularized by Jimmy Carter, although accepted by other dictionaries, is still considered an incorrect pronunciation (which by any reasonable standard, it is).

Also, and perhaps even more importantly, The American Heritage Dictionary gives excellent etymologies for most words, whereas not all other dictionaries do.

Check back to my blog occasionally as I make my way alphabetically through the English language. It will be a verbal adventure.
Orig: 5/13/08


Bonnie said...

This is exciting !! I can't wait to follow your word journey and learn words that I am absolutely positive I will never have heard of before !!

I am surprised to hear you say it has come to this ... because I remember, at least it was my childhood perception of, you reading the dictionary most of my life !! Perhaps now you are reading it more like a novel ... like you said, from the beginning ! Where as when I was a child, I just often saw you with your head in a dictionary !!

Anyhoo ... I was telling someone about pro-active the other day. They didn't get it. But they did laugh at my re-telling of the time the admiral (or which ever higher up it was) coming to visit and using pro-active ... you know the story so I won't finish it ! :)

Happy Bushes Mary Terese said...

I too am excited that you are doing this study because as I am a student bludger,(lazy person) I would never concentrate enough to finish the job. But I know you will pass on the most interesting titbits for us lesser mortals to enjoy. When Terry and I were first married we did not always pronounce words the same way. The dictionary was our mediator. It was close to our dining table and handy to pick up!!!!

Mari said...

You are a wise man! Not only in words but in life - this I know from reading your daughters blog!
PS - she has a really cute picture of you posted. When I saw it - before reading the post I thought it may be Jimmy. I think he looks like you.

Pammy said...

I was wondering when that book would inspire a dictionary tour! :-) That was what I had in mind when I bought the book. I'm excited to be educated by the blog posts.

Cheri said...

I thought it was Jimmy too. What a cute picture.
I'm impressed that you're studying the dictionary- can't say that my brain could handle that!!

PS- I read bonnie's blog and I'm Mari's sister.

alissasanderson said...

I think you would get along well with my Father-in-law. He, too, has a fascination with words, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if he had read the dictionary!

Have fun!

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