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Of Balanoids and Ombrifuges

A Word (or Two) on Forgotten Language

Logodaedaly, or, Sleight of Words: A Dictionary of the Imagination is published by Wolverine Farm. Its author, Colorado native Erzsébet Gilbert, now tends a vineyard in Hungary.

Aren’t there enough dictionaries in the world?

Some of my most vivid memories include heaving the enormous volumes of the complete Oxford English Dictionary off the shelf of astrophysical texts in my father’s dusty study, and staring through a magnifying glass to see the miniscule print of all these forgotten, specialized, simply weird words, trying to pronounce them even when I was still learning how to read and write. I’ve always wanted to be an author, since the days my parents rocked me back and forth and read aloud. And I’ve forever had this sense that in opening a book, I was unfolding an entire world unto itself, with its own laws and beasts and realities—where could I find more worlds than in a dictionary?

Didn’t it get a little boring to read every day?

Never! Not to be vulgar, but English really is a bastard of a language; what I mean is that it has no single root, but over a thousand years has drawn on a glut of words and grammatical peculiarities from dialects around the globe, so it has an absolute wealth of synonyms. It’s changed so much, coming from such an expansive nation as Britain and spreading to America, so there are always inevitable surprises lurking in its past. I’m a total nerd: I’ve been browsing the OED for fun for years. I actually really like ancient Greek letters and academic essays, and shamefully, I even love bibliographies. I think I got a little bit smarter writing this, or I hope so.

Do you have a favorite English word?

Melliferous—which means producing or generating honey—because I’ve found more magic within it than in any other word. I first discovered it when browsing the OED six years ago as a college student in the History and Philosophy of Science, and was so enchanted that at one a.m. I found myself scribbling down a story. The next morning on a whim, I sent it to a fiction contest, and the main judge called me in to collect my prize a week later. The person I met that day is now my spouse, so within melliferous I found not only a fantasy about a girl sweating honey, but also true romance.

Are there any words you hate?

Blouse. I shudder just to say it. It’s gross. I’d scoop my eyes out with a spoon before I’d wear one.

It seems more and more people want to speak English. Is this a good thing?

It’s an ambiguity—most things are. I love to travel, around Europe and across Eurasia and Southeast Asia, and the paramount thing I always try to learn is the local way to say thank you. The shift from one tongue to another, one alphabet to another, is simply melodic. And as I now live in Hungary, it’s been both a pleasure and an intellectual tribulation to learn a language almost totally unrelated to mine, except for paprika. I adore English, as is probably obvious. But I certainly don’t want to see it replacing the endangered languages around the world. The dominance of English has a lot to do with past crimes of imperialism, and I think that as we speak it, we have to remember that it owes its richness to the poetry of people who were often subjugated, but always possessed their own stories; that history has to be preserved in each utterance.

What’s the future of English?

We can’t predict the destiny of any tongue—language is too metamorphic, by nature, and what we imply by glitter or cantaloupe or emerald might be entirely different a century from now. A word doesn’t mean anything: it’s the flickering symbol we write upon the universe, so that for one moment we make meaning out of matter. What this book truly taught me is that any given word is simply the sign of possibility, the potential for an innumerable number of tales.