What in the world is a smift? Look it up

What in the world is a smift? Look it up By Bob Karolevitz The trouble with being a writer is that folks think that you are an expert on words.

Granted, words are our tools in trade, but a lexicographer I'm not.

People keep asking me for definitions, like offhand I'm supposed to know what an adelopod, a cromlech or a magilph is. Shucks, I wouldn't recognize a reeve if I came face-to-face with one.

"What's a smift?" Phyllis asked me, as if I knew a smift from a thlipsis.

"Look it up in the dictionary," I tell her. "That's what I have to do."

"You know, it's that big book in my office," I say. "It's chuck full of words like zythum, rhotacism, monad and liripoop. I'm sure you'll find smift there."

I don't think Noah Webster knew all the answers either when he first started collecting entries for his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language published in 1806.

Actually Webster was a johnny-come-lately in the word business. Before him there was Geoffrey the Grammarian, the Dominican friar, who compiled something like 12,000 nouns and verbs even before printing was invented.

Then came Richard Huloet whose Abcedarium in 1552 has been considered the first real English dictionary. Others followed, like Edward Phillips' New World of Words in 1658, Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 and Caleb Alexander's The Columbian Dictionary, with its truly American words like cent, dime and dollar, in 1800.

Finally Webster got into the act.

Already well-to-do because of the success of his spelling book, the Connecticut Yankee lawyer and former newspaper publisher � born at West Hartford on Oct. 16, 1758 � turned his attention to the compilation of words and their meaning. The result was that his name became virtually synonymous with all dictionaries, although he was already dead by 1843.

I just thought you'd like to know all this stuff. After all, you wouldn't want to go through life thinking that Funk and Wagnall were the only ones to string words together.

I could also tell you about Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm who put together their Deutsches Worterbuch, a German scientific dictionary, which was a far cry from their Grimm's Fairy Tales for which they are much, much better known.

But I won't.

Suffice to say that the big thumb-worn book I regularly go to when I'm writing contains words that Noah Webster probably never heard of � but he's still included in the title.

In his original compendium, he traveled extensively in England and France to trace down word origins. He must have been quite a guy. Now it takes a huge staff of researchers and writers just to keep current the work he did as a lone individual.

I'm not sure that he knew that a smift is a fuse, but after a trip to my office, Phyllis does.

Now if it ever comes up in a Scrabble game, I'll know, too!

© 2001 Robert F. Karolevitz

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