The Ecphorizer

Three Little Dictionaries
John Cumming

Issue #12 (August 1982)

"Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."
 Samuel Johnson

The Morrow Book of New Words, compiled by N. H. and S. K. Mager and published in 1982 by Morrow (New York), claims to contain "8500 terms not yet in standard dictionaries." In the Introduction, the authors say they use Webster's Third (1967) as their point of departure.

[quoteright]This work contains a lot of expressions that never will find their way into any standard dictionary. Much of it reads like a distillation of Time and Newsweek magazines. It is full of pharmacological terms, such as "Dextran" (an IV fluid); so why not Ringer's, or Isolyte G? There are so many terms for contemporary weapons -- missiles, aircraft, etc. - that parts of it sound like an Argentine general's shopping list. Yet despite its claim to utter up-to-dateness, it includes a definition of the "Delta Dagger" F-102 Interceptor, an obsolete aircraft of the 1950s

Nevertheless, the authors of this book have scooped Webster's and the Oxford on such new words as "digital watch" and "dishabituate" (to break a habit), not to mention "doggie bag" and "pooperscooper." On the other hand, their discovered "dum-dum bullet" is in my Webster's Collegiate of 1961. As the newness of their entries is flawed, so is their cross-checking. Lists of Soviet aircraft refer the reader to entries under their NATO code names (such as FLAGON for the Su15). But there is no entry under FLAGON. This defect occurs repeatedly. The CIA at work?

It is refreshing to find a dictionary that defines such terms as "spaghetti Western" and "groupie," whatever its drawbacks. One of its better entries is "hype": "intentional excess verging on deception that creates popular enthusiasm for a person or product." Like the publisher's claims on the cover of this book.

A more solid specialty work is the Zen Dictionary by Professor Ernest Wood, formerly Dean of the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. It seeks to represent to the English speaking reader the Zen vocabulary of China and Japan, all the while imparting a good bit of Zen philosophy as well.

Browsing through it we find "Monkeys, the Six," about the Zen master Chung Hueng-en. When asked how to look into one's self-nature, he replied: "Suppose...that there is a cage with six windows, in which there is a monkey. Someone calls at one window, 'O monkey,' and he responds. Someone else calls at another window, and again he responds. And so on..."

Under the entry for "Liberation" is described the Catch-22 of Buddhism. All schools of Buddhism seek freedom from the endless round of death and rebirth; but since we are bound into the cycle by our desires, "the desire for escape would thwart itself." The Zenist tries to avoid this dilemma by aiming only for satori, knowing that "enlightenment automatically cancels the desires which cause rebirth and so brings the process to an end."

Koans are not defined, but illustrated by examples. They usually come from Zen masters as responses to questions put by students, or at the end of a brief dialogue between master and student. "Question: Who is Buddha? Answer: Three measures of flax." Or the famous one: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Kyogen Chickan is not an oriental menu item, but a disciple of Isan who became well known as the source of the "broken tile koan." The story is that he had been puzzled about enlightenment, and while working outdoors one day his rake struck a broken tile, creating a startling sound. "Suddenly he experienced satori." Consistent Zenists would say, according to the author, that the satori was caused by a cessation of "current or habitual mentalizing, which permitted the new experience."

"Kwatz" is a meaningless word often used by the teacher Rinzai. The story goes that Rinzai once asked a disciple whether it awakened more truth to strike someone with a stick or cry "kwatz." The pupil answered neither and, on being pressed, exclaimed "kwatz." Rinzai struck him with a stick. The student had been "mentalizing" and had to be "knocked off his mental perch." "Katsu" is another meaningless word, "first used by Baso Doitsu and later made famous by Rinzai Gigen."

More meaningless words can be found in Jargon by Joel Homer, published in 1979 by Times Books. Its subtitle, "How to Talk to Anyone About Anything," is a considerable overstatement for a work of hardly more than a thousand entries. The four major divisions of Jargon say a bit more about the level that the author is trying to reach: The Power Brokers, Messages from the Media, The Technocrats, and Voices of the People. Each of these divisions is prefaced with remarks by the author and are further divided into subchapters such as "Big Business Talk" (part of The Power Brokers). His approach suggests that the author is "into" jargon, and is trying to tell us that this is "it."

The vocabulary under "Helpful Talk" (Voices of the People) is a revelation. No populist visions of Common man here. Right away we find "actualize," attributed here to mainstream psychologist Kurt Goldstein, as a term for the process of freeing oneself of all neuroses and becoming "a full-time citizen.., in reality." We learn that in California "brutal" has now replaced the once ubiquitous "heavy" to describe "any concept or person that is notably profound." Oh wow, this was written in 1979 and here I am still saying "heavyl" That's brutal, man.

Other expressions defined in this chapter are "I hear you," "inner space," "non-verbal verbalizing," "selfless greed," and the quintessence of newspeak: "valnew, a new actualized value (love for all things) that replaces an old nonaware value (love for all money). The topper for this section is "Who are you screaming with?" This is a conversational gambit "asked when two actualizing friends meet after a long hiatus." It means "what sort of therapy are you into these days," with a sort of nod to Janov's Primal Scream therapy. Under Political Jargon we learn that an "inadvertent criticality" is a serious mistake. On the other hand, when a politician says he has to "go to POO" he'll get back to you or your question after he has studied it more. The term refers to "program zero zero," an astronaut's expression for resetting the onboard computer. Perhaps related is the "pre-pleading investigation by the Probation Department designed to ascertain whether the social environment of the defendant is conducive to rehabilitative training," known as "pee pee." The dadaists must have been onto something after all.

All in all, Jargon comes out as a "precious" work of little significance beyond a minor curiosity value. Like Morrow's New Words it promises more than it delivers.  

Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.