In an earlier essay I drew attention to several strange gaps in the Oxford English Dictionary. And I do mean the 20 volume work, with over 600,000 entries. Strange that there could be any gaps in it. But one of the gaps is philtrum. It is the vertical groove from the nose to the upper lip. It is part of the natural topology of shaving, or applying lipstick. Philtrum does not appear as a headword in the OED or in Johnson. However you will find it in Nathaniel Bailey’s English Dictionary (1742) and in the 2nd edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language. Other American dictionaries recognise it.
It does however appear in the OED, but only indirectly. In the entry for dysmorphic, a quotation is given from the 1997 Journal of Medical Genetics “Her face appeared mildly dysmorphic with a large forehead, short philtrum, and bushy eyebrows.” Clearly a reference to the thing we are discussing.
But it gets another look in. The entry for philtre includes a passing reference to philtrum, although it does not make much sense. Philtre is defined as “A potion or drug (rarely, a charm of other kind) supposed to be capable of exciting sexual love”, with supporting quotations from 1587 to 1858. But a second meaning is given, supported by two quotations:
“1653 R. Sanders Physiogn. 278 A mole on the philtrum or hollow of the upper lip, under the nostrils.”
“1706 Phillips, Philter or Philtrum.‥ Among some Anatomists, it is taken for the Hollow that divides the upper Lip.”
This meaning is said to be obsolete, but that can’t be right because Bailey recognises it, and it has been used increasingly since the early 1900s in reference to the facial feature, not in reference to love potions.
But more than this striking gap in the OED’s coverage is the quotation from Phillips. How odd to rely on anatomists for reference to the philtrum: the philtrum can be seen plainly on the face without any further examination; but anatomists see things by cutting them.
Anatomy means cutting up, dissection. Its root is Greek tom meaning cut. An atom is something which cannot be cut into smaller parts (that’s what people thought at any rate when the atom was named). The OED puts it well. It defines atom this way: “A hypothetical body, so infinitely small as to be incapable of further division; and thus held to be one of the ultimate particles of matter, by the concourse of which, according to Leucippus and Democritus, the universe was formed.” It was used this way from the 15th century, well before the inner complexities of the atom had been discovered. (JJ Thompson discovered the electron as a component of the atom in 1897; Rutherford found the proton in about 1909, and the neutron was not discovered until 1932, by James Chadwick). Since then, these apparently fundamental, indivisible components of the supposedly indivisible atom have themselves been found to be a fantastic mix of other bits and pieces: quarks, hadrons, gluons, bosons and so-ons.
So the atom is not an atom at all, strictly, but the name has stuck. The root is found in many places:
Anatomy: literally, cutting through.
colostomy: cutting an artificial opening into the colon through the abdominal wall.
dichotomy: division of a whole into two parts.
lobotomy: incision into (especially) the frontal lobe of the brain, in the treatment of mental illness.
And in surgery, countless other –ectomies in which things are cut out. Most familiar is the appendicectomy: cutting out the appendix or, as the OED magnificently has it “Excision of the vermiform appendix of the cæcum” (Note that it is a syllable longer than appendectomy, which is an Americanism not favoured by the Australian medical profession). The familiar CAT scan is Computer Aided Tomography: that is, ‘cutting’ the body by taking computer-processed X-rays to produce tomographic images or ‘slices’ of particular parts of the body.
Similarly, from the same root we have:
epitome: an abridgment of a work, extraction of its principal features.
microtome: in medicine, an instrument for cutting extremely thin sections for microscopic work.
tome: a volume of a (written) work. The original idea was that the whole work was cut into several tomes. And just in case you need it, a hecatontome is a collection of a hundred tomes. Oddly, a monotome is a work comprising a single volume. Although the word has been around since the 19th century, it is rarely used, perhaps because it makes no sense. If it is a tome, it should be a slice of a larger work.
Until I began researching this essay I had not been terribly excited about the absence of philtrum from the OED, but I have become quite worked up about it. On any view it is passing strange that the word which describes a visible thing common to all 7 billion people on earth, which is neither embarrassing nor indecent, should be denied its place in the Oxford sun. Its absence is, as Mark Antony said “the most unkindest cut of all”. (He was not talking about circumcision).
The unkindness is magnified when you have regard to the number of utterly useless words which bask complacently in the OED. For example, words which have the hecato– prefix to describe a hundred utterly pointless things. Hecatologue: a code of a hundred rules; hecatomb: on offering of a hundred oxen (terribly useful these days); hecatomped: an area one hundred feet square; hecatonstylon: a building having one hundred pylons; hecatontarchy: government by a hundred rulers; and hecatophyllous: having leaves consisting each of a hundred leaflets.
And let’s not oblive (= forget) those other space-wasting words which have the prefix sesqui-to signify one and a half of something. How often have you had to resist the temptation to use sesquialter: Proportionate to another object as 1½ is to 1; or sesquiduple to express the meaning ‘two and a half’; or sesquipedal: a foot and a half long (44.1 cm); or sesquiplane: a biplane having one wing of surface area not more than half that of the other; but I suppose we will have to keep sesquiplicate if only because its definition is so wonderfully obscure: “Bearing or involving the ratio of the square roots of the cubes of the terms of a certain ratio”. (Actually, the definition of syzygy when used as an expression in mathematics is better: “A group of rational integral functions so related that, on their being severally multiplied by other rational integral functions, the sum of the products vanishes identically; also, the relation between such functions”).
Philtrum has to go into the OED. If space is a problem, I think there is a case to be argued for dumping some of these words, but if removing any of them to make way for philtrum seems like too great a sacrifice, we might just ditch heptaglottologie, that is, a treatise concerning seven languages.
[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]
Summer holidays open the way to all sorts of pastimes. Scrabble is a favourite family game, and it now infests the internet in the form of a game called Words with Friends. It is a seductive little app for the iPad, which looks like Scrabble, but has its bonus squares arranged differently, presumably for patent or copyright reasons.
Having been lured into the torments of both games, I was powerfully reminded of two things. First, Scrabble has nothing to do with an interest in words, any more than Sudoku is about mathematics. Scrabble it is all about tactics and point-scoring; same for Words with Friends.
The second thing is that English has an astounding array of obscure words. Most people with an interest in language know this, but we are rarely reminded of the fact so forcefully as when pitted against a Scrabble opponent whose only objective is to guess their way through every possible permutation of their letters.
Scrabble was invented in 1938 by an American architect, Alfred Butts. Ten years later James Brunot bought the rights to the game in exchange for a royalty on every copy sold. Butts (or his estate) must have done well out of it: about 150 million copies of the game have been sold, and versions of it exist in 29 different languages.
Since the key objective of Scrabble is to get the best score from even the most unpromising letters, the dedicated player naturally resorts to some very odd words. For a person who enjoys words, the only pleasure in this is to discover for the first time some of the weirdest fauna in the jungle of English.
Collins Scrabble Dictionary is the instrument by which this dubious activity is put to the test. It presents itself as authoritative, and conscientiously displays the trademark TM symbol every time it uses the word ScrabbleTM. It contains every word said to be a legitimate Scrabble word, and gives very brief definitions.
So, amorance is defined as the “condition of being in love”. OED 2 does not recognise the word. Neither does Webster’s 3rd edition. The 3rd edition of Webster is the most interesting, but was highly controversial when it was published in 1961 because it moved from prescriptive to descriptive. Earlier editions had declared what words mean; the 3rd edition instead acknowledged the meaning attributed to words by actual people, nodding to the essentially democratic nature of language. From the 3rd edition, Webster accepted that words mean what we agree them to mean.
Apparently the Collins people have taken this process one stage further, to the point of acknowledging words which no one uses, no one recognises and which neither the Oxford nor the Webster has come across. Words however which are a useful expedient for Scrabble fanatics.
Camisa is defined as “a smock”, which actually makes sense (cf French chemise) and is recognised by Webster 3rd, but OED 2 again stands aloof: the nearest hit in OED 2 is camisado, which it defines as “A night attack; originally one in which the attacking party wore shirts over their armour as a means of mutual recognition”, which is obviously connected to camisa, and is quite useful to know, because the added do means an extra three points.
Daud is shown in Collins and also in OED 2 and Webster 3rd. But Collins defines it as “a lump or chunk of something”, whereas OED 2 and Webster 3rd both define it as a dialectical variant of dad. As a father, I was troubled by the thought that I might be described as a lump or chunk. But both OED 2 and Webster 3rd tell you that the dad which can also be rendered as daud is a verb, and means “to shake with knocking or beating”. Neither of my preferred dictionaries acknowledges daud as a noun.
Ervil is defined as “a type of vetch”. Vetch is defined as “a climbing plant with a beanlike fruit used as fodder”. OED2 does not recognise ervil, although its entry for vetch agrees with the Collins. And for devotees of Scrabble, vetchy is also legitimate: “Composed of, abounding in, vetches”.
Whoever uses jeelie, or maungy? Certainly not the compilers of OED 2 or Webster. And who recalls mackle (a blur in printing)? Who knew that an omov is a system of “one person, one vote” (I suppose it was originally the sexist “one man, one vote”)? Only in desperation is it necessary to know that oot is Scottish dialectical for out – not the preposition out, but the obsolete form of ought/aught. And even if you knew that, it is astonishing to learn that the Collins permits an apparent plural: oots. That is odd because it is not a noun, and not even the verb ought with some idiomatic conjugation. It is a misspelling of ort, which is a variant of ord, which is an obsolete word meaning either “beginning”, or “the pointy end of something”. Sadly, the Collins does not take us on this ramble through obsolete Scottish arcana: oots cross-refers to oot, which cross-refers to out, which it defines as “denoting movement or distance away from”: the standard preposition. Now it is true that the Collins confines itself to one volume, so it is necessarily Spartan in its explanations. But its (indirect) definition of oots is not only confusing, it is plainly wrong: I never before met a preposition which took a plural.
Frug is a word I was blissfully innocent of, and likewise fugle. I probably should have known frug: it is a dance which had a brief appearance in the 1960s, but dancing was not really my thing. To fugle is to act the part of the fugleman: “A soldier especially expert and well drilled, formerly placed in front of a regiment or company as an example or model to the others in their exercises”. Clearly useful words, at least for a person playing Scrabble. Nearby, the Collins has fugly. OED 2 recognises this also, and helpfully explains that it was originally Australian military slang and means, as most of us know, “a very ugly person”. The Collins agrees, but editorializes: “offensive word for very ugly”. Webster 3rd adopts a frosty silence: it does not recognise fugly at all.
Collins makes arch observations about some words, noting several words as “taboo words” but nevertheless allowing them to be played. In this regard, its standards look a little old-fashioned (in contrast to its racy willingness to allow all manner of doubtful words into play). While it defines arsehole (and asshole), bugger and bloody without comment or criticism, it baulks at shit as “taboo”, and likewise a few other easily predictable words. This delicacy extends to forfex, which it defines modestly as “a pair of pincers, esp the terminal appendages of an earwig”. OED 2 is a little less oblique: “A pair of anal organs, which open or shut transversely, and cross each other”. While both the entomological and etymological enlightenment is interesting, for a Scrabble player it is a terrific word because F is worth 4 points and X is worth 8 points.
And this is the problem with Scrabble: it is all too easy to lose interest in what the words mean and become concerned principally with their value. A player interested in words will strive to recognise available words in the tiles on their rack, and feel pleased to discover outside (8) or aunties (7) or suited (7) in their jumble of letters. How disappointing then that short words like zax (19 – variant of sax: a tool for cutting slates) or coxy (16 – variant of cocksy: self-important, saucy) or zoa (12 – plural of zoon: an organism scientifically regarded as a complete animal) or oyez (16; at least we all know that one) are worth much more than the cleverly selected words. And when the skilled player manages to place high value letters on a double- or triple- letter square, the difference is magnified.
I plan to avoid the lure of Scrabble this Summer. I no longer want to spend idle time being seduced into a frenzy of debasing the language by trying to maximise the score. Too soon, and not surprisingly, the score for each word becomes the object of the game.
Scrabble is not a game for people keen on words: it is a game for people keen on winning. That is probably why so many lawyers love it. But don’t play it with the 20 volume Oxford at your elbow: it is far too limited.
[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]