By Paul Dickson
Bloomsbury. 227 pp. $18
William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mark Twain: We know and love them for their stories and characters. But they contributed more than memorable literature over the course of their careers. They also gave to the English language some of the very words and phrases that make up their tales. If you want to learn about these contributions, you could open up your personal, weighty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Or you could turn to the slender greatest-hits collection compiled by Paul Dickson as “Authorisms.” I recommend the latter.
This sprightly little book provides the origins of words and phrases we use all the time, such as “space” in the sense of outer space (John Milton), and ones you might not hear of anywhere else, such as the term H.L. Mencken coined for a striptease artist, “ecdysiast.” Almost every page feels like an “aha moment” (Lawrence Edwin Cole, in his 1939 textbook, “General Psychology”). There are words you’ll want to tuck into your back pocket for the ultimate Bananagrams party trick, including “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” Shakespeare’s showboating word from “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” meaning “the state of being able to achieve honors.”
The book is also full of terms for concepts you may have always wished had a name. Nearly every Metro rider can put to good use “alogotransiphobia,” or “fear of being caught on public transportation with nothing to read,” collaboratively coined in 1992 by a novelist, a journalist and a saloon-keeper. And what about “gnurr”? If you ever were searching for what to call “the substance that over time collects in the bottoms of pockets and the cuffs of trousers,” now you know. Hat tip to poet and scholar Alastair Reid for that gem.
Dickson, a Garrett Park resident, has written a dozen word books and dictionaries. In “Authorisms,” it’s clear he has perfected the genre. His tone is light but informed. He sprinkles in his own wit and several amusing digressions, involving recipe-containing footnotes for anchovy paste (spun off an entry detailing the first English appearance of “anchovy” in “Henry IV, Part I”) and “daiquiri” (popularized by F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Dickson’s prose is readable even when it delves into more scholarly debates, such as how many words Shakespeare coined, with estimates ranging from several hundred to more than 10,000. Dickson is also careful about making clear when a writer invented a word vs. having been the first one to record it.
“Authorisms” is an unputdownable (Raymond Chandler) exercise in philology that makes you chortle (Lewis Carroll). As James Fenimore Cooper would have said, “A-Number-1.”