Happy To Be Here: Questioning an established authority

Published 3:03 pm Friday, February 2, 2024

For those who have wondered: Yes, I am still working my way through the dictionary. I started reading Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition at the beginning of 2021. Choosing this particular dictionary seemed logical to me. For most of my working career, it has been a trusted guide for resolving grammatical controversies, spelling problematic words, and sorting out which compound words should be written as one word, two words, or a hyphenated collection of words. My copy has also arbitrated many games of Scrabble. I never questioned it. I just accepted its authority.

Last year, however, some definitions I encountered caused my faith to waiver. I stumbled upon information that seemed incomplete or out of date.

My doubts started with the word force. The second meaning given refers to the numbers in the Beaufort Scale, a system of describing wind strength that is detailed under the letter B. To illustrate force in this context, the dictionary editors offer the phrase “a Force 10 hurricane.” According to the Beaufort Scale, a hurricane is Force 12. Force 10 winds are a “whole gale” or a “storm.” The Saffir-Simpson Scale, a different measure related to hurricanes, classifies them in categories from one to five. Either way, there’s no such thing as a hurricane with a rating of 10.

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Moving into the letter G, I ran across the word gaboon. I wasn’t familiar with it, but to my ears, gaboon sounds like it ought to be some kind of monkey. The dictionary claims it is a spittoon. I wasn’t convinced, so I looked into the matter. According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, a gaboon is a venomous snake, the largest viper in Africa, with fangs that can be two inches long. My guess was completely wrong, but the dictionary’s assertion, which is based on an obscure dialect, doesn’t seem entirely right either. The Smithsonian’s online picture is more compelling.

Additional trouble arose when I reached green pepper. My dictionary insists this is an unripe red pepper. Perhaps in some circumstances, but I think the term more commonly refers to a green bell pepper. Not a yellow, orange, or red one, but one that is green when it is ripe. Local grocery stores seem to agree with me.

The biggest shock I received had to do with the definition of hokey-pokey. I could hear the song’s melody and words in my mind, encouraging me to move one arm or the other, or a leg, and shake them. It’s the quintessential activity at summer camps and events where any group of people wants to participate in something that’s familiar to everyone. Everyone, that is, except those on my dictionary’s editorial staff. They report that hokey-pokey is “ice cream sold by street venders.” They don’t mention singing and turning yourself about. Not at all.

This assertion was so surprising, I dug a little farther. The Oxford English Dictionary affirms the ice cream meaning and provides a list of citations from 1884 through 1970. It notes that the similarly named party dance may have originally been the hokey-cokey, although it acknowledges that a folk dance with the spelling hokee-pokee was known as early as 1873. 

Definitions related to ice cream seemed to be from England and other parts of the UK. I wondered if a dictionary with a specifically American orientation might have a different view. Luckily, my husband has a copy of The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English. It says, “a communal dance that is performed in a circle with synchronized shaking of the limbs in turn.” It does not mention ice cream. Not at all.

In my dictionary’s defense, the copy on my desk is twenty years old, and it’s the eleventh edition of a work first produced in 1898. Our language and culture are not static entities. The ways we express ourselves and the conceptions we share continuously evolve. My excursion through the dictionary has been helping me learn that sometimes a limited cultural lens misses a broader perspective. Sometimes questioning an authority opens the way for hearing other voices and points of view. That process may take more time and effort, but it leads to greater understanding.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.