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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Reference’ Category

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‘You should write something about the thesaurus,” suggested my friend Rosalind sternly, or, if you prefer, severely. It’s true that thesauri are interesting.

It’s true that thesauri are interesting. Indeed, perhaps fascinating or engaging; also, useful, handy, serviceable, or even advantageous.

Rosalind is a good buddy, chum, cohort, companion and playmate, and provides helpful suggestions for this column. The thesaurus – the word comes from the Greek for “treasury” – is indeed a treasure, and would make an excellent topic for a bit of a chat.

Serious word-nerds hanker after the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED). Read the reviews, if you want to see literati get really steamed up. One said it made him “gasp out loud with amazement, several times”.

This wonderful compendium contains 920000 words and meanings, including words from the Thesaurus of Old English (it took so long to compile – 45 years apparently – that some of the Old English words were just about current when the process started). The thesaurus is organised by meaning, rather than alphabetically, and shows not just synonyms, but also related words.

Because synonyms are arranged chronologically, oldest first, you can see the development of the language. It’s also handy for writers of historical fiction. Now you can find out which particular word the 18th century barmaid in your bodice-ripper would have used. So you don’t have her saying: “Fancy a bevvy before you off to the chipper, luv?” or some such.

Steven Poole, writing in The Guardian, posited that this thesaurus, published in late 2009, might be one of the last great printed works of reference. He talks of the “serendipitous finds” that delight the user of the printed work and suggests that simply typing a word into a search bar wouldn’t allow one to be side-tracked in such a manner.

In many ways, a work of reference is ideally suited to the digital format. A dictionary, thesaurus or encyclopedia can be continuously updated when new information comes to hand. It is unconstrained by the cost of printing, or the amount of space one might reasonably have on one’s bookshelf.

It can sit on the desktop of your Macbook, ready to do service at a moment’s notice. You can even highlight and double click a word in the document you are working on, and the operating system will helpfully give you a synonym on the fly. But the joy of “flipping though” and being deliciously distracted from one’s intended purpose, is lost.

In my continuing efforts to find time-wasting delights on your behalf, I was fortunate to come across all sorts of interesting bits and pieces on the HTOED. Marc Alexander and Kate Wild, of the University of Glasgow, undertook a case study of words relating to men, women and children, a fascinating insight into the evolution of ideas of masculinity and femininity. Tea-body, petticoatery, the skirt, bird, and dame, being a few examples that illustrate how women were viewed through the ages. Children were often named for small animals – chick, kid, tadpole and tiddler.

Only relatively recently did we differentiate between children of different ages or stages, with words like toddler and pre-adolescent and, in our own time, “tweens” – marketing-speak for bigger kids who are not yet teens. Their most important feature, it seems, is that they have access to pocket money and are thus welcomed as fully fledged, if slightly short, members of the consumer culture. Rather ghastly (shocking, distressing, grim), really.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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It’s Crazy Facts Time

It’s all about tradition, this time of year. There’s comfort in knowing that year in, year out, come what may, by the immutable laws of nature and/or commerce, November will bring with it certain things. Jacarandas. Idiots on the roads.

A collection of Zapiro cartoons. The sounds of Boney M in the shopping malls. A new Jamie Oliver cookbook. A heft of political and celeb biographies. New faces in the gym.

But nothing shouts “Here comes Christmas!” like the arrival of a new, updated, splendider-than-ever, now-with-even-more-amazingness edition of Guinness World Records. Also, The Top 10 of Everything and Ripley’s Believe it or Not and a few lesser-known collections of strange facts and even stranger people.

The arrival of a review copy of one of these books is a high point in my son’s year – he falls upon it like a starving man on a Bar One and immediately starts regaling us with gems like: “Did you know that the world’s heaviest person weighs as much as an adult domestic water buffalo?”

Which I didn’t, but I realise, on reading these books, that I lead a very sheltered life. There are many things that surprise me. Sometimes, not in a good way. There are many things I do not know. This bothers me not a jot – you can get along just fine without knowing that the record for shelling a boiled egg is 18.95 seconds, or that the largest lederhosen are 5m tall. But once you have these fact-and-figure books in your house, you are no longer allowed to exist in this happy state of ignorance. There’s something about such a book that makes the reader want to share. The first three or four facts are rather entertaining; thereafter, less so.

“What were you thinking, letting that book into the house?” hissed my brother, who had popped in for a visit and found me hiding under the bed with my hands over my ears. “You know what happens.”

And then he stopped coming round for a bit, hoping the novelty would wear off and he would again be able to visit without hearing about the highest pancake toss. The rest of the family refuse to get into the car with the books (trapped!), and motivate for the small boy and the large books to be quarantined in his room.

In fairness, there are some good bits. In particular, I have a fondness for pointless ridiculousness. Doesn’t it gladden your heart to know that someone, somewhere, is teaching 13 dogs to simultaneously jump rope? Or, (as did Laura Hadland), creating a giant mosaic, made up of pieces of toast burnt to varying degrees of brownness, depicting her mother-in-law.

I’m also fond of giant vegetables. And very large dogs, and certain other animals, but not humans. That’s just depressing. Incidentally, it’s worth buying the Top 10 just for the picture of the Southern Elephant seal, the world’s largest carnivore, we’re told, which weighs 4000kg.

On the subject of end-of-year staples, I’d like to motivate for the return of the annual. Proper annuals, not the Strictly Come Dancing annual, or the Justin Bieber annual. The ones we got in my childhood, when everyone got a new annual every Christmas – Beano or Dandy for boys, Diane or Mandy for girls. They were a mix of stories, comics, puzzles, jokes, things to do … Yes, just the sort of stuff you now get by the bucketload, for free, off the internet. But it was rarer and more delightful in those days, and on paper. It really was.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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