Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Word Nerd Sez: A is for ...

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a word nerd. I don't just mean it in the sense of "words are my tools as a writer and I like to have a full tool box." I'm a word nerd in the sense of "sorry I'm late, I looked something up in the dictionary and got distracted and read the whole section between yak and yerk."

Words fascinate me. I like their precision. There are whole stories in their etymology.* Words are what separate us from the animals; they are uniquely human. So I get lost in dictionaries sometimes. I'm a longtime subscriber to the A.Word.A.Day listserv, and rarely get stumped by the Reader's Digest "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power." Being a word nerd means I also like to share my enthusiasm with others. So for you loyal readers of The Blathering (all six of you), I introduce a new feature: "The Word Nerd Sez..."

In this installment, I begin at the beginning. The Word Nerd Sez: A is for ...


It's only appropriate I begin this feature with a word whose meanings include "alphabetically arranged" or "relating to the alphabet." As you can tell from the pronunciation—ay-bee-see-DAYR-ee-uhn—the word was inspired by the first four letters of the alphabet. Medieval scholars coined the term abecedarium because they wanted a fancy Latin word to describe their alphabet books, and we changed -arium into -arian so it could serve as either noun or adjective.

I love abecedarian games. When Boy was younger, we often dealt with long waits by playing alphabet games such as "pick a subject and name words from A to Z." (It's relatively easy for astronomy—yay, quasar and x-ray!—but harder for subjects like vegetables or car models.) The abecedarian book constitutes a whole genre of children's books, from Sleeping Bear Press's state-by-state series of alphabet books to works by Caldecott winners like Chris Van Allsburg.

My favorite abecedarian work is Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a perfect antidote to the sugary saccharine books we sometimes see for kids. I wish I could find my copy (it's a tiny book, and has been swallowed up by one of my overcrowded bookshelves), but to give you a taste, the book begins: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs / B is for Basil assaulted by bears." I was totally hooked even before I got to the exquisite line: "N is for Neville who died of ennui." I don't think I'll ever pen an abecedarian work, but the word sure is fun to play with.

*Etymology: the study of word origins (from the Greek etumon, true sense of a word + -logy, to speak of or study), not to be confused with entomology, the study of bugs.

1 comment:

  1. Must read Mike Lester's picture book, A is for Salad. Quirky, funny, and a chance for little werdnerds to say, "No it's not!"