by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
One last dictionary book. I’ve not gotten to some I said I would, and some that were recommended, which is why it’s great that there will be an October 2012 when I can do this again.
But, wow. I had no idea what I was in for when I picked this one up.
The Disheveled Dictionary is the third in a trilogy of style manuals. Quirky style manuals whose titles just about say it all: The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed (note the Oxford comma), and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. In the words of Yolanta, one of the characters who appears in these books (innocent? doomed?) and who writes the preface for the dictionary when The Author runs off to France, “This book is about liberating words from their literal meanings, ourselves from our circumscribed scripts.”
The book is saucy, funny, quirky. It has the ghost of a plot, and I grew to like its layered structure as characters, settings and, yes, odd words, reappeared.
Each entry defines a word, then uses it in a sentence. It is the sentences that define the book. Those sentences add up to something of a plot, featuring characters and settings from the earlier books. I have not read those books, so I was more lost than might ordinarily be the case when reading a dictionary.
cognoscente, cognoscenti (plural)
persons with superior knowledge and understanding of a particular field, especially in the fine arts, literature, and fashion
The gathering was indeed formidable: a collection of idiot savants holding forth on their specialties while the cognoscenti of contemporary literature skulked off to powder their notions or cowered on couches and passed out on porches among their muted allusions.
A little of this sort of thing goes a long way, which the dictionary itself acknowledges:
excessive, extreme; highly unconventional, bizarre
Don’t you find these soi-disant exemplary sentences outre? I mean, no one actually talks this way!
Like the One-Letter Word Dictionary, I picked up this book up on a lark. It was a disorienting read, which is an accomplishment in itself. It’s not easy to get lost on a trip from a to z, but I had a few chuckles along the way.
And, a fact whose importance should not me minimized, I learned something about Noah Webster, who was the inspiration for my month of dictionaries:
of or like twilight
Noah Webster’s last words, “The room is growing crepuscular,” put the old codger before us in a fine light. Pedantically genteel, they were worthy of the school-master whose A Grammatical Institute of the English Language … had sold in millions–and is still in print–and whose An American Dictionary of the English Language was the Republic’s absolute arbiter of spelling and usage. In one of its hefty volumes his grieving but puzzled family found the meaning of “crepuscular.”