Word Nerd: 8 weird definitions that you never thought belonged in a dictionary

3 Jul

Open any dictionary today – whether online or print, and look up a word. Even if you look at a word that’s funny, for instance a name you can call a person, the definition will be simple and precise. It’s easy to forget that these definitions have been written by real people with opinions and biases, and hard to believe, a sense of humour.

But dictionaries weren’t always like this. Lexicographers certainly weren’t. We’re talking about one in particular, titled ‘A Dictionary of the English Language.’ It was written by Dr. Samuel Johnson.

The dictionary was first published on 15 April 1755. It was an ambitious work with 42,733 entries. It was not the first English dictionary ever published but it was the most comprehensive one. And Dr. Johnson, with his sense of humour, monumental scholarship and staggering hard work shaped his unique achievement. This dictionary doesn’t just have more than 42,000 words, it also has more than 100,000 supporting quotations.

The definitions of these words are funny, personal and even politically incorrect. And quite a few of the words are obsolete. Nevertheless, in these words and definitions, we get a glimpse of one of a unique personality and of the 18th century.  As word nerds, what more can we ask for? Enjoy.

1) Liplabor: Action of the lips without concurrence of the mind.

Not a word that exists anymore, but one that can be brought back,  given how people behave on social media today.

2) Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Word nerds though we are, we quite understand. Everyone is allowed a little self-pity/self-mockery at some point. As is Dr. Johnson.

3) Mushroom: An upstart, a wretch risen from the dunghill.”
A definition that leaves us speechless. Perhaps Johnson needed to be introduced to pizza to enjoy mushrooms better? Or maybe Chinese cuisine. At any rate, that little fungus deserves better.

4) Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Johnson wasn’t particularly fond of the Scots, as is obvious from this definition. But, some argue that he was just stating a fact here. Nevertheless, Oxford and other dictionaries are more clinical about the definition today. And less likely to upset people from Scotland.

5) Sock: Something put between the foot and the shoes.

Well, he’s not wrong there. But, it sounds like Dr. Johnson was just giving up at this point.

6) Shapesmith: One who undertakes to improve the form of the body.
In other words, a personal trainer. We prefer Johnson’s word, although we wonder just how many shapesmiths were gainfully employed in Dr. Johnson’s time.

7) Stateswoman: A woman who meddles with public affairs. In contempt.

Clearly a definition that would not pass muster today. Remember Dr. Johnson lived in an age where learning in women was appreciated only by a very few. The public sphere was not where they belonged unless they were society women or actresses.

The current Oxford definition gives us much relief.

8) Vaticide: A murderer of poets.

We don’t know why there was ever a need for this word. Were there way too many poets milling with, and annoying, the crowd? Or, were there too many psychopaths who took exception to rhyming and poetic metres? We can only wonder.

Thankfully, the word is not in current usage. We’d like to return to our slender volume of funny poems now please, thank you.

Here is a funny clip from BBC’s Blackadder series on Dr. Johnson and his dictionary.

Any other funny dictionary definitions you would like to share with us?
Email us or leave a comment below.

Read more of Word Nerd here.

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