Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Word Lovin' Iconoclast

Gelett Burgess. Rings a bell? This irrepressible early 20th century figure was at once a linguistic inventor, humorist, poet and creative powerhouse who today is... almost forgotten. Which is a shame, and which is why we celebrate the re-release after a long, long slumber of his classic Burgess Unabridged: A Classic Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed. We spoke to lexicographer Paul Dickson, who wrote a new foreword to the book, about this remarkable man and his work.

VT: Why do you think this book was re-released after so long?

Paul: Burgess is fascinating because he was one of the few people of his era who had this inventive ability to create words, and have at least a couple of them stick. He flew in the face of convention when he published his book back in 1914. He was up against big battles against slang, big battles for the King's English, the big battles against descriptive as opposed to proscriptive English. His book was radical at the time because the thinking then was that real words only came from Latin, Greek, or were careful borrowings from other languages.

VT: Tell us about this man? Who was Burgess?

Paul: He was a tour de force. He wrote novels. He wrote and published poetry journals. He was always pushing the envelope. One public poetry journal he published was printed on discarded wallpaper samples. He would do things that were just outrageous in some ways. He wrote children's books because he thought all the books for children were no good. He wrote a mystery novel just because he had never worked in that genre. He played with words. The famous puzzle writer Will Shortz pointed out to me that he considered Burgess one of the pioneers of the crossword puzzle movement.

VT: Did he study formally?

Paul: He studied for a little while at the University of California but then one night he might have had a drink or two and went out and wrecked a statue of a prohibitionist, and was expelled from the school. He was a contemporary of Ambrose Bierce boiling up on the West Coast. There was an intellectual ferment out there at the time. Everybody thinks the ferments were in the East, but they were also on the West Coast, with Jack London and others. Burgess published over 40 books in his lifetime. They were all over the place -- he just loved to try something once.

VT: What a remarkable life. What are some of your favorite words from the book?

Paul: It depends on my mood. I love "blurb" because of what it did.

VT: So "blurb" is a word that Burgess made up that stuck in our language?

Paul: Yes, and "bromide" is another one.

One of the reasons he's intrigued me so much was for years you could only find his works as very expensive rare books. It bothered me that his stuff was rare because it shouldn't have been. He should be popularized. We know that Mark Twain was funny. But Burgess sort of got lost.

VT: Tell us about his most famous poem, "Purple Cow"

Paul: It was just this little poem that he wrote. Wait, I'll read it to you:

I NEVER saw a Purple Cow
I never hope to See One;
But I can Tell you, Anyhow,
I'd rather See than Be One

It became a famous nonsense rhyme but Burgess eventually regretted having written it. Life Magazine ran a picture late in his life where he built a purple cow and is destroying it with an axe. Theodore Roosevelt said it was one of his favorite poems. It became sort of the moniker of Burgess' life, the thing that identified him. Williams College even adopted the purple cow as their mascot. It became a sort of a mirror of nonsense.

VT: Any other Burgess words that grab you?

Paul: So many. I love "huzzlecoo," which is intimate talk, a confidential colloquy. His descriptions are so wonderful, aren't they?

VT: Amazing, yes. "Jirriwig" he describes as "a superficial traveler, a Philistine abroad, a bromide in search of himself." Hilarious. It seems he took such pleasure of the words, which we almost take for granted now because so many people take pleasure in just words.

Paul: Burgess may be the patron saint of this whole business of words as recreation. I mean if you draw the line through snigglets all the way back, you'll come back to him. Language, of course, doesn't necessarily come out of a roundtable of learned people deciding what's going to become a word.

I think he really broke this ground. Today you find so many people who are sort of -- I call them "word-os" -- word nuts, people who love to try to create language. Full disclosure here - I'm one of them: For years I was in the Guinness Book of World Records for collecting the most synonyms ever collected. I found 1,236 synonyms for "drunk."

VT: Wow.

Paul: It wasn't to celebrate drunkenness but just to point out the richness of our language. And that's what I love about Burgess. In the end his message was, hey, have fun with the language.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 10th 2007, 5:10 AM
Comment by: Curt E. (Skarpnack Sweden)
"...We spoke to lexicographer Paul Dickson, who wrote a new
f o r w a r d to the book, about this remarkable man and his work."

Forward - that's usually a striker in soccer, sometimes also ice hockey and other team sports.
Shouldn't it be 'foreword' or 'preface'? Looking up 'forward┬┤in VT does not give it the meaning you appoint to it.

I see 'forward' used in lieu of forewordm a lot, especially in marketing e-mails and I have until now considered it a sign of semantic incompetence.

Or am I totally wrong here? English is not my first language, after all.

Otherwise I find VT and the occasional articles enlightening, to say the least.

Best rgds

/Curt E
Wednesday October 10th 2007, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Jackson M.
forward or foreword?
Wednesday October 10th 2007, 12:21 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
It is great to hear something of Burgess. I had noted the credit for "Purple Cow" and wondered what else from this person. I love the inventive writers who honor the language by pressing it to the limits. My heroes are Twain and Vonnegut and Joyce, of course, but also Lawrence Durrell (See "Tunc" and "Nunquam"). It is fine to be picky about details such as forward or foreward, but more interesting to celebrate the delights that made Burgess special.
Wednesday October 10th 2007, 12:27 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for forwarding the information about the typo! :) Good catch, fixed. And yes, Burgess was amazing. This is indeed a delightful book. Thanks again, Harris/ VT editor
Thursday October 11th 2007, 3:05 PM
Comment by: Tanisha E.
In the same wind of creativity, i am in love with colloquial terms that when spoken bring immense color, vividness, and clarity to a situation. For example, one of my ultimate favorites is "taste so good make you want to smack your (own) mama." This African American phrase heightens the listener's awareness that whatever the speaker has just eaten was so delightful that he or she would risk the unthinkable- raising his or her hand against the woman that raised and educated him or her. This action would never occur, but the compliment to the chef is undeniable.

Anyone have any other colloquial terms that they adore or know of any authors that have cataloged such terms?

Thursday October 11th 2007, 4:57 PM
Comment by: Ailios N.
By the time I read this, the forward/foreword typo had been corrected, so the first comment made no sense. The typo which made me pause was the "'statute' of a prohibitionist"; I decided that statue made more sense.

Regarding typos, misspellings, grammatical errors and the like, I find myself confronted with so many these days that I make an automatic mental correction and move on. Is this the right approach, or am I contributing to the general dumbing down of the online community? Even in a forum about language, and kindly allowing for typos instead of ignorance, it's difficult not to offend when highlighting the errors of others. What is the current web etiquette on this isssue?

I was once fired (or at the least, passed over for promotion) for excising an apostrophe from a possessive "its" while typing a letter for my boss. His anger at my presumptuousness caused a room full of timorous coworkers to agree with him, when most of them knew I was right. I have never forgotten this lesson.

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