By CATHARINE MORRIS
“The great thing about a dictionary”, said Mark Forsyth – the author of The Etymologicon (2011), among other books – at the launch of the new Collins English Dictionary at Waterstones Piccadilly a couple of weeks ago, “is that you can start anywhere and finish anywhere”. “I go to a dictionary to look up a particular word and I find – ah yes, ‘Agnate’ means ‘sharing a common male ancestor’ or whatever it happens to be and then my eye just sort of drifts, so I discover that there’s a word ‘aglet’ meaning the small bits of plastic on the end of your shoelaces . . . and then my eye drifts further and further and further and eventually I come to look at my watch and discover that it’s February”.
The theme of the evening was favourite and least favourite words (the TLS contributor David Collard has written very entertainingly on the topic from an aesthetic point of view; you can find his blog posts here and here). Our host, the journalist Lucy Mangan, asked Forsyth, who provided the introduction to the new dictionary, what qualities he looked for in a word. “It’s wonderful when a word means something very, very specific . . . like ‘gongoozle’ – I remember finding that in a dictionary of canal terminology . . . . Gongoozle means ‘To stare idly at a canal or other watercourse and do nothing’ . . . . I have since discovered that it is still extant in the houseboat community”. He also offered “sprunt”, used in the Roxburgh district of Scotland in the early nineteenth century, which means “to chase girls around among the haystacks after dark”; and “mamihlapinatapai”, used by the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, which he defined as “two people looking at each other both wanting to do the same thing but neither wanting to be the person to do it”. (When Mangan said that it should be a British word, Forsyth agreed: “It describes every kiss I’ve ever had”.)