The Ecphorizer

The Reverse Dictionary Is a Dangerous Book
John Cumming

Issue #07 (March 1982)

For circa one lustrum a work that must surely be a vintage book for lovers of periphrasis, and a true benediction for writers of screed, has been available through your local colporteur. This is a book called Bernstein's Reverse Dictionary.

And a true reverse dictionary it is. The author has succeeded in producing a work in which the definitions precede, and are used to locate, the word defined. To do this, Bernstein has reduced the definitions of 13,390 words to their absolute brevity, and then assembled then alphabetically. By ordering and re-ordering the word sequence of the definitions so that each significant subject or modifier has its turn being the first word, or by replacing them completely, the sometimes multiple referential (or associative) routes to finding a word are satisfied.

[quoteright]The author's intention in writing this book is to provide a means for wordsmiths to find a word they once knew, but cannot recall at a critical moment. Since each definition comprises some sort of concept, and the concepts become grouped into lists, one might suspect that what we have here is really a new thesaurus. Not quite. The typical thesaurus guides one to a pile of related words, and leaves the reader to distinguish the nuances of meaning by looking in a normal dictionary. In the Reverse Dictionary, such laborious researching is prevented.

Another benefit of this book is the simple, alphabetical arrangement. Roget's Thesaurus attempts a plan so sublime one must be part philosopher to understand it. Words are grouped under a hierarchy of concepts, such as Abstract Relations, Order, Space (not outer space), Matter, Intellect, etc. I suspect that Roget has never gotten a grip on the twentieth century. Bernstein has produced, on the other hand, a work with a plan so simple that a modern high school graduate could understand it.

Unfortunately, there is another use to which the Reverse Dictionary can be put besides finding le mot juste. It can be made to help make bad writing worse. The first sentence of this essay is written with the help of the RD. The very brief definitions provided permit the misuse of various words in the fashion shown. Searching for such words in a thesaurus, and cross-checking their meaning in a normal dictionary, would have been a troublesome task. With luck, the hack would collapse with exhaustion from looking into so many books, and give up the enterprise entirely. Fit with the handy RD, those who have written more than they have read can preserve their innocence of books while attempting a gloss of learning through the use of obscure, or inappropriate words. It's like giving guns to idiots.

A few sample entries:

about, approximately: circa
five-year period: lustrum  
choice, excellence or exceptional quality: vintage
wordiness, circumlocution: periphrasis
blessing: benediction
writing that is long and tiresome: screed
book peddler: colporteur.

All entries are arranged alphabetically by the first letter in the definition. Some definitions are re-stated in a different order elsewhere, to help the searcher, as:

circumlocution, wordiness: periphrasis.

Sometimes it is hard to do a word justice in this manner. Consider:

maid to a lady, lady's maid: Abigail

Abigail, used as a synonym for a maid, is a true literary and Biblical curiosity. Anyone attempting to use Abigail in place of maid had better set up the context so the reader understands. In Brewer's Dictionary, it takes a very full paragraph to explain the reason that Abigail can be used in this fashion.

Here's what one finds under definitions beginning with marriage:

marriage in trial form: companionate marriage
marriage for the second time: deuterogamy

And here's one of many from baseball:

baseball hard hit so that it travels in an approximately horizontal trajectory: line drive

Browsers are rewarded with surprises. Under entries for definitions beginning with "word," one finds such words as crabo, anagoge, and ABRACADABRA. Under definitions beginning with the word "give," I spotted words like bandy, retrocede, emit, stint, etc. Curiously, "gay" is not associated with homophile in this work. The word "gay" defines rollicking, jocund, fey (puckish) or rakish. The author is not from San Francisco.

No sources are given for the definitions used in this work, but many of the entries seen to correspond in phrasing with entries in The New York Times Everyday Reader's Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, Mispronounced Words. (Bernstein is a contributing editor for the New York Times.) More esoteric entries can probably be found in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

It would be nice to have a thesaurus with definitions, and without such an elaborate plan as Roget presented in his synopsis of categories, but the Reverse Dictionary's definitions are too brief. Of course longer definitions might complicate the task of compiling the work, with more entries for each word to cover various differences. Unfortunately we are left with a "lite" reference work, useful only to those who know the words, but can't quite pull them from memory This was the author's stated intention, but it seem to me that this tack could have been more interesting and more useful, if it had been more thoroughly done. 

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