Friday, May 29, 2009

Of Bees and Bookworms: Looking at Scripps' Official Dictionary

I was wondering whether the Scripps Spelling Bee people get their words from the same places the rest of us get our words from. So I went to their website and found this:

Official dictionary and source of words:

Webster's Third New International Dictionary and its addenda section, copyright 2002, Merriam-Webster, (Webster's Third) is the final authority for the spelling of words.

How odd that they’d answer such a simple question with such an ambiguously structured sentence. Does that mean that Merriam-Webster’s, Webster’s Third, and the addenda section of the international dictionary are one and the same – here, appositives – that are all copyright 2002? Is “Webster’s Third” a parenthetical renaming of Merriam-Webster and, if so, why is there a comma after “Merriam-Webster”? Does this mean Scripps relies on two dictionaries and, if so, why would the coordinated subject take the singular verb “is”?

I’m familiar with Merriam-Webster, it's the default dictionary of the Chicago Manual of Style. Webster’s New World College Dictionary is the default dictionary of the AP Stylebook. American Heritage, even though it doesn’t get such a nod from a major style guide, seems to rival the other two in popularity.

But Webster's Third New International Dictionary was a new one on me. I checked Amazon and learned why: It has a cover price of $129. Understandable for a huge, unabridged tome. But still, this means it’s not on most of our bookshelves. (I, for one, don’t spend that much on jewelry.)

So I thought I’d look up some spelling bee words in the dictionaries that we little people rely on. Here are some of the spelling bee words that cropped up in newspaper articles today and what I found when I looked them up in the online versions of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage via, and’s own entries (which often draw from other dictionaries):

laodicean: All four dictionaries list, offering similar definitions like “lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics.”

ergasia: Merriam-Webster does not list the word, but offers a definition credited to Merriam-Webster’s Medical dictionary. American Heritage lists the word, its definition very similar to M-W’s: “the sum of the mental, behavioral, and physiological functions and reactions that make up an individual. Webster’s New World does not list.

kurta: M-W: yes. AH: no. yes, from its unabridged version. WNW: yes. Definition: “a knee-length, collarless shirt worn over pajamas by men in India”
or “a woman's dress resembling this shirt.”

apodyterium: M-W: no (but says it can be found its unabridged version, which users must pay to access). AH: no. yes (attributed to Webster’s Revised Abridged Dictionary. WNW: no. Definition: The apartment at the entrance of the baths, or in the palestra, where one stripped; a dressing room.

hebdomadally: All but WNW had a listing for this word, which means “weekly.” A search for hebdomadally WNW online turned up information about the word under listings for “regular” and “weekly.”

That’s better than I thought. I suspected that Scripps was acting sort of like that board game Balderdash, which, though great fun, picks some very questionable words.

Bookmark and Share


Adrian Morgan said...

I'm rather fond of Balderdash, but we don't exactly play by the rules.

We don't use the board or the dice, and for my part I have my own book of ridiculous (and equally questionable) words that I use instead of the ones on the cards.

Also, I prefer to play for laughs rather than points. Whenever possible, I invent definitions based on really bad puns. The most annoying thing about the game is not being able to think of a good definition.

When you do that Australian holiday which you're secretly planning, I'll play a few rounds with you, OK?

June Casagrande said...

It really is a lot of fun. I'm a fan of the game. I still remember the definition I gave about 10 years ago for the word "nitsqueeger." I defined it as, "One who squeeges nits."

Points: Zero. Opportunity to laugh that hard at my own joke: Priceless.

Count me in for the Australian Balderdash open.

Adrian Morgan said...

The most memorable one I ever did was to "flitterbick", as "a biscuit whose absence from the jar is unaccounted for". Although people knew it was nonsense, they liked it so much that they voted for it anyway. That's the ultimate prize in Balderdash, I think.

Adrian Morgan said...

Oh, and for no reason except that my brain is winding down for the night and easily amused, how many people have so far pointed out to you that "June Casagrande" is almost an anagram of "canned jaguars" (just drop the final "e") and actually an anagram of "jaguar needs can"?

(I worked that out myself, without cheating by using any fancy software or websites to do it automatically.)

June Casagrande said...

LOVE the idea of an AWOL cookie so important that it has its own word. And your flitterbick definition raises an interesting question: Is there an American version and a British version? Or how about an American version and a British version and an Australian version and a New Zealander version (the latter containing lots of Elvish words and Hobbitish terms like "elevenses"?).

Re the anagrams, some months ago, I DID use one of those fancy software thingies and I don't recall it coming up with any jaguar references. Poor little can-needing jaguars.

I'm impressed you came up with those.

I have a weird thing with anagrams. I like them, but my brain sort of loathes them. It really wants to see words (or at least syllables) as whole things and not as their letters. Still, it's like I have an innate, visceral reaction to not just anagrams but even games like "Wheel of Fortune" and the Junior Jumble. Methinks me cognitionses funny. (This may also explain why, when learning a foreign language, I tend to speak it much better than I understand it, whereas most people tell me that, for them, it's exactly the opposite.)

Of course, I'm probably not as unique in this regard as I think I am. But that's a whole other thing ...

Adrian Morgan said...

For some reason, biscuits often come labelled as cookies on the packaging, it's like we have one word for commercial packaging and one word for real life. Doesn't make sense to me either.

You'll remember how I recommended for you to read "The Truth", Terry Pratchett's novel of how printing and newspapers were invented on his fictional world. One character appears to agree with you about words and letters.

"'Hold on, hold on,' said the Bursar. Yes, figuratively a word is made up of individual letters but they have only a,' he waved his long fingers gracefully, theoretical existence, if I may put it that way. They are, as it were, words partis in potentia, and it is, I am afraid, unsophisticated in the extreme to imagine that they have any real existence unis et separato. Indeed, the very concept of letters having their own physical existence is, philosophically speaking, extremely worrying. Indeed, it would be like noses and fingers running around the world all by themselves-'"

June Casagrande said...

Ah! I forgot all about the Pratchett recommendation. Now it's perfect timing because I just handed in a manuscript today, meaning I'm officially off deadline.

Thank you!

Adrian Morgan said...

I really look forward to reading your review. :-)

"The Truth" isn't his best novel, but even mediocre Pratchett should be good enough for a Simpsons fan. Did I just say that? I meant: but it's probably a good one to start with, because the relatively simple plot leaves more space for the narrative to revisit basics such as biographies of important recurring characters - stuff that some of the other novels assume you already know.

Afterwards, if you want to go on to reading some of his other novels, I can recommend my favourites. (I can also advise on which ones to avoid. Personal opinion, but an author who writes over thirty novels can't be expected to get it right every time.) Having read The Truth, you'll be empowered to not be baffled by even some of the most complicated stories in the series.


June Casagrande said...

It's now officially on the "get to this" list (which is, of course, a long list that includes two stacks of stuff sittin' in my house waiting to be read/finished. I should probably give myself permission to not finish the unfinished ones ... but that's a whole thing all by itself.)

Anyway, thanks!


Bookmark and Share