Welcome to the blog of science fiction author Eileen Rhoadarmer--where science fiction and Mommyhood collide!

Monday, May 10, 2010

I Love Dictionaries

And Thesauruses.  Thesauri?
(Yes!  Both are correct, according to dictionary.com)

I never used to be much of a dictionary person.  Back in the days when the only one available was a book, I often couldn't be bothered to make the effort to haul it out (it's always a very heavy book!) dig through it, find the word, put the dictionary away again... (I know, sounds lazy, doesn't it?)  But now that it's so conveniently online, I use it quite frequently.  Dictionaries come in so handy for dispelling family arguments.

Take yesterday, for example.  A debate broke out at our house during Mother's Day brunch over whether the word "couple" always means specifically "two," or whether it can also mean "an indeterminate, small number."  Now, this is no new argument.  My husband and I have debated it regularly, probably for as long as we've known each other.  He's a "two" man, and I'm a "small number" person.  He keeps trying to tell me that by my definition of couple, we should be inviting other people to join our marriage (har har honey, but there's more than one usage here.)  It turned out our family was also somewhat divided on the issue, so after a few threats to start timing one another the next time somebody asks for "a couple of minutes," my mom jumped up to consult the dictionary.

So here we are:
cou·ple (kŭp'əl)
1. Two items of the same kind; a pair.
2. Something that joins or connects two things together; a link.
3. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)
     a. Two people united, as by betrothal or marriage.
     b. Two people together.
4. Informal A few; several: a couple of days.
5. Physics A pair of forces of equal magnitude acting in parallel but opposite directions, capable of causing rotation but not translation.
(These definitions came from dictionary.com, and so may vary slightly from those we looked at yesterday in an old American Heritage.)

Now, my mom tried to devalue my definition because it didn't show up until the fourth entry, whereas hers  (and hubby's) was the first--but I think she just didn't like being proven wrong.  (I proved my mom wrong on Mother's Day, does this mean I'm derelict in my filial duties?  But hey, she's the one who ran immediately for the dictionary...although I was trapped at the table with no easy way past people, whereas she had a straight shot to the bookcases.)  I'd like to add one more bit to the argument, quoted from a Usage Note, also on dictionary.com:
"Although the phrase a couple of has been well established in English since before the Renaissance, modern critics have sometimes maintained that a couple of is too inexact to be appropriate in formal writing. But the inexactitude of a couple of may serve a useful purpose, suggesting that the writer is indifferent to the precise number of items involved. Thus the sentence She lives only a couple of miles away implies not only that the distance is short but that its exact measure is unimportant. This usage should be considered unobjectionable on all levels of style."
The phrase is inexact.  Ha!

All familial gibing aside, I still love dictionaries, and especially thesauri.  Hardly a day of writing goes by without my consulting one or the other to learn a definition, confirm a definition, find a good synonym, or find a word that escapes me by looking up its synonyms.  Both dictionary.com and thesaurus.com are towards the top of my Favorites folder.  They're essential for perfecting wordplay, and they keep me learning.

Here are a few things I learned today:

From today's word picks:
blath·er·skite (blath-er-skahyt)
1. a person given to voluble, empty talk.
2. nonsense; blather.

and from Did you know:
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is actually in the dictionary
su·per·cal·i·frag·i·lis·tic·ex·pi·al·i·do·cious (soo-per-kal-uh-fraj-uh-lis-tik-ek-spee-al-i-doh-shuhs)
(used as a nonsense word by children to express approval or to represent the longest word in English.)
Word Origin & History
from song in 1964 Disney movie version of "Mary Poppins;" subject of a lawsuit based on earlier song title "Supercalafajalistickexpialadojus" (1949), but other versions of the word also were in circulation.


Sue Lewczyk said...

Maybe you have a couple of screws loose.....????? Hmmm? Bwahaha! Mother was not defeated!!! But you'd like to think so, wouldn't you?

Eileen Rhoadarmer said...

We proved that "couple" does not always mean "two!" So there. :P

Anonymous said...

If you really want to be "proven" you'll have to check American Heritage, which is a prescriptive dictionary. The others are descriptive, and they don't offer usage guidance or opinions typically. Since a descriptive dictionary only describes possible meanings and takes no position on the legitimacy of a word or definition, I'm afraid you've consulted the wrong dictionary to decide who is correct. Or more correct. (otherwise said, a descriptive dictionary will label things "informal" but there's no telling if that's informal--obscene/offensive or informal--slang or informal--substandard usage.)

Alternately, in the interest in being understood, you could conform to the majority rule.

I hear a lot of people say "next Saturday" on Friday when they mean tomorrow and it always throws off my schedule, because "next Saturday" to me is more than six days away.

-- Brian

P.S. Asimov just opened to electronic submissions.

Anonymous said...

So how many screws are loose....two or three or four! Bwahahaha again. Your version or mine? Which is worse in this case?

This is fun!!!!!

Brian's comment about descriptive and prescriptive dictionaries was very interesting. Never heard dictionaries described that way before. Have to look into that.

Oh, by the way...your cousin Kelly says two!!!!!!

Sue Lewczyk said...

Whoops. I didn't mean to be anonymous. This is your mother speaking!!!

Eileen Rhoadarmer said...

Well, the book dictionary we consulted on Mother's Day WAS an American Heritage...

Did I inherit any of those screws from my Mom?

?? :P

Sue Lewczyk said...

Why of course you did, Dahling! Approximately half of them! <3

Poppa Jim said...

Not to percuss on an expired equine, but when your Mom asked for a "couple of banana slices", she wasn't asking for an indeterminate small number. You could have mashed the slices together to make their number indeterminate, but her usage at that time meant two.

Now if they were Lima beans, we could have started a war...

Eileen Rhoadarmer said...

Yes, but how was I to know that? She might've wanted three--that's why I asked. I suppose I could've just grabbed a handful and not known how many she got until I opened my hand. That's the problem with using vague terms for a specific request.

The lima bean war was fun, though!