Thursday, 12 March 2009

Pleasant surprises

One of the questions you often get asked when people find you are a lexicographer is, ‘So do you know all of the words in the dictionary?’ Unfortunately, this is a question that has to be answered in the negative. Although l must have looked at every page of The Chambers Dictionary on numerous occasions, there are still some words that appear quite unfamiliar to me when I come across them.

Of course, the reason why many words manage to evade notice for long periods is that they are instantly forgettable: scientific and technical terms, perhaps; obscure flowers, pieces of furniture, medieval weapons. But just occasionally I will come across a word that seems to have a very useful function, and I wonder why I have never encountered it before in everyday life.

I have watched golf on television for years and never remember having heard the term hosel, which the dictionary tells me is ‘the socket for the shaft in the head of a golf club’. I must have tied up shoelaces thousands of times, and yet I never imagined there would be a word for those tags on the ends of them before one day I came across the word aglet (‘the metal tag of a lace or string’).

I had a similar experience recently when encountering the word terret. This (among other things) is ‘a ring for fastening a chain to, eg on a dog’s collar’. This seems such a useful word that I am determined to make use of it. Yet it seems that most dog-owners simply use the word ‘ring’, if they feel the need to refer to the thing to which they attach the lead at all.

Wouldn’t life be dull for a dictionary editor if you really did know all of the words and never had the pleasure of coming across something new?

Ian Brookes

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