by Catriona Mills

The Reference Shelf

Posted 28 August 2008 in by Catriona

I have a weakness—one that I persistently indulge—for reference books.

And I’m not even talking about the sort of reference books that everyone should have on their shelves: the OED, Strunk and White, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, or The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

I’m not even talking about the ones specific to my discipline or my occupation: MLA Handbook, Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, or The Little, Brown Handbook.

No: I’m talking about the odd ones. The . . . slightly embarrassing ones, like Who’s Who in Enid Blyton. The ones that I don’t look at every day, or every week.

And then, looking at my shelves at work and again at home, I thought, “Sod it. These books are awesome. Every one of them has taught me something. It may not be something terribly essential and chances are that I won’t remember it tomorrow, but it’s still been imparted.”

So this is in honour of my favourites among the not-quite-essential reference books that I love.

Ghastly Beyond Belief: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of Quotations by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman.

I’m going to love any book that warns me to “sterilize [myself] with fear.” But the most valuable thing this book taught me? That Tony Stark, at some point in his continuity, uttered the line “I’ll meet you at the Frug-a-go-go when I’ve finished with the cyclotron, baby.”

Smooth, Tony.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones.

Diana Wynne Jones just rocks. That’s all there is to it, really. But The Magicians of Caprona and Archer’s Goon are one thing, and a tourist’s brochure to fantasy fiction is another.

Sample entry: “Small Man can be a very funny or a very tiresome TOUR COMPANION, depending on how this kind of thing grabs you. He gambles (see GAMING), he drinks too much and he always runs away. Since the Rules allow him to make JOKES, he will excuse his behaviour in a variety of comical ways. Physically he is stunted and not at all handsome, although he usually dresses flamboyantly. He tends to wear hats with feathers in. You will discover he is very vain. But, if you can avoid smacking him, you will come to tolerate if not love him” (174-75).

1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence by A Member of the Whip Club (Frances [sic] Grose, according to the introduction).

This one speaks for itself, surely.

No? Might be just me, then. It certainly helps when you’re reading Georgette Heyer novels, that’s for sure.

This, I think, is my favourite entry.

Dommerer: A beggar pretending that his tongue has been cut out by the Algerines, or cruel and blood-thirsty Turks, or else that he was born deaf and dumb.

It’s just so curiously specific, isn’t it? The proviso stuck on the end—“or, he might not have much of an imagination. You know, whatevs”—seems a bit of a let down.

Book of Intriguing Words, Paul Hellweg.

I’m just going to list the weirdest of the new words that his book taught me while I was flipping through it this afternoon.

Daphnomancy: divination by means of a laurel tree.
Ailuromancy: divination by the way a cat jumps.
Cinqasept: a short visit to one’s lover (literally from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.)

(But surely the last would also apply to a period between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.? )

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.

Now this one is a vital addition to the shelf, really, but I had to include it in the list just so I could give some sample definitions.

Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.

Guillotine, n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.

Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun by Willard R. Espy

But, seriously: who doesn’t need a dictionary of eponyms? I had no idea, before browsing through this, that “tawdry” was an eponym (taking its name from a corruption of St Audrey, in reference to the inexpensive lace collars sold on her holy day) or that badminton took its name from the Gloucestershire seat of the Duke of Beaufort (where it was first played after being imported from India).

An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton.

Now, I don’t know how many of these collective nouns are tongue in cheek and how many are derived from genuine sources. I believe that the collective noun for hounds is “a mute” (from the Old French meute, for either “pack” or “kennel”) and that a legitimate, if rare, alternative is “a sleuth of hounds” (from the Old Norse sl√≥th, meaning “track”).

That seems plausible.

But this following list seems both as though it’s entirely fabricated and as though the words should be in more common use:

An angst of dissertations.
A vicious circle of fallacies.
A tabula rasa of empiricists.
A conjugation of grammarians.

When I find gems like these, is it any wonder that I keep buying reference books?

And that isn’t even revealing the existence of my Dictionary of Pirates or Encyclopaedia of Plague and Pestilence.

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