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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