In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revels in the arcane lexicography of Mrs Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words
The word deboswellize means ‘to deprecate someone in a biography’. It’s derived from James Boswell, the celebrated biographer of Samuel Johnson. Anaxiphilia means ‘the act of falling in love with someone entirely inappropriate, by someone who should know better’. More emotive, and dripping with unspoken and tragic hopelessness, is the word anacampserote, which refers to ‘something which can bring back a lost love.’
None of these three words is likely to be on the tongues (or in the minds) of the average reader, and they were new to me until I recently encountered them, in Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual Obscure and Preposterous Words: Gathered from Numerous and Diverse Authoritative Sources, which may just be the most endlessly fascinating and entertaining lexicon I’ve yet encountered. (I’ll except the Oxford English Dictionary here, and possibly Johnson’s dictionary, on the grounds that they are beyond question in the fascination stakes for the sheer vastness of their achievement.)
This book is the work of Josefa Heifetz Byrne, a concert pianist and composer, whose hobby was collecting odd words, which she gathered into a single volume in 1974. The book remains out of print but turns up on various online bookshops for an affordable price from time to time. The introduction reassures us: ‘Incredible as it may seem, every entry in this book, even the most ludicrous, has been accepted as a formal or legitimate English word by at least one major dictionary.’ Not all of them will be found in the OED, as they were presumably found in old and now rarely consulted lexicons from centuries past. But the words that are here are, it would seem, ‘real’ words rather than ones dreamt up by Byrne on a whim. The author of this introduction, Robert Byrne (the compiler’s son, perhaps?), wittily concludes his preface by apologising ‘for the ammunition this book provides to bad writers.’
A book that is ghost-written is not anonymous or, strictly, pseudonymous, but allonymous. Yahoomanity is a portmanteau combining ‘humanity’ with Jonathan Swift’s coinage from Gulliver’s Travels, ‘Yahoo’, to describe the rage of brutish humans, and denotes ‘people en masse’. A wampus is a stupid, dull, loutish clod. A voidee is a ‘last-minute snack’. A misodoctakleidist is someone who hates to practise the piano, from Greek words meaning ‘hatred’, ‘rehearsal’, and ‘keyboard’. The adjective Augean describes something utterly filthy, and is derived from Augeas, a ‘legendary king whose stable held 3,000 oxen for thirty redolent years.’ Ughten is the word used to describe morning twilight (as opposed to evening twilight). Talking of the evening, vespertine describes anything that happens in the evening. Jobation is ‘tedious criticism’. Quaggle is an old word to describe the quivering of something, such as jelly. A quodlibetarian is someone who writes a scholarly dissertation on a debatable point. Wegotism is, in a stroke of genius by some anonymous word-coiner, ‘excessive use of the editorial “we”.’ We know how annoying that can be.
Reading through a dictionary can be mentally exhausting, the format is so repetitive and one soon feels a sense of information overload. Mrs Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words is, like many reference books of this kind, best consumed in small portions. It was republished in 1979 by Granada Publishing, and it’s this edition I own (pictured above right); presumably it was a tie-in for a TV programme produced by the Manchester-based regional television company, although I haven’t been able to find out if this is the case. But it’s the kind of book that I can imagine being put out in time for the Christmas market, as the perfect trivia-book gift idea for word-lovers looking for a new tome for the smallest room in their house.
Are such words useful in everyday conversation? No, on the whole; the joy of learning such words lies almost within their very uselessness, their lack of practical application or (pace General Melchett) the idea that one might use them more often in conversation. Fans of pub quizzes and people who like sharing unusual words with other logophiles, though, will find Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual Obscure and Preposterous Words: Gathered from Numerous and Diverse Authoritative Sources to be an endless delight, the trivia gift that keeps on giving.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.