04 April 2008


There's a fascinating blog entry about the history of lexicography here.

I'll skip to one neat paragraph, which that blogger is quoting from a professor at Rutgers:

Johnson's Dictionary contains many of these hard words, and for word lovers they can be delightful. There you'll find nidification, meaning "the act of building nests," and gemelliparous, "bearing twins." Scrabble players will delight in words like ophiophagous ("Serpent-eating"), galericulate ("Covered as with a hat"), or decacuminated ("Having the top cut off"). But Johnson was not entirely comfortable with them: "I am not always certain," he said, "that they are read in any book but the works of lexicographers" (preface, pp. 87-88). He was right. Consider the word naulage, which appears in nearly a hundred books in the eighteenth century alone. The problem is that every one of those books is a dictionary. They all tell us that naulage means the fee paid to carry freight by sea, but there's no indication the word was ever used even by those paid to carry freight by sea.

Most of those words would simply annoy a scrabble player, since you never have enough tiles to spell galericulate anyway.

Still, they are fun. Assuming that "naulage" was never used, how did it get invented? Johnson was implying that the authors of such reference works were copying from each other. And in the case of "maulage" the word would sound plausible anyway, so would be copied without much compunction. Haulage + nautical = naulage!

Perhaps the first author to use it intended it as a trap. He might have figured if somebody copied it, he'd have proof that person had stolen from him. That trap worked wildly well, then, with nearly a hundred steals!

Anyway, as I word lover myself I'm going to be on the lookout for opportunities to use "naulage."

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.