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Dictionary Day: Volume XI, “A”

The Dictionary Project is an exploration of The Century Dictionary and Cylopedia, a twelve-volume set printed in New York in 1901. The Project runs from October 2014 to September 2015, and matches volume numbers to calendar months. Volume XI is one of two New Volumes published in 1909, eight years after the original ten-volume set came out. Volume XI covers new terms from A – L.

The Prefatory Note for this volume notes in its opening paragraphs that English vocabulary has grown at a prodigious rate since the original dictionary was published, no dictionary of a living language is ever complete, they’ve been accruing and cataloging new words, and what lies within the pages of the two New Volumes is mostly scientific and technical terms. But we mustn’t let that stop us, so let’s have a squizz, shall we?

Vol XI AThe top of the first column on the first page of Volume XI features  a lovely illustrated letter A (which, sadly, is too close to the bound edge to scan properly, but you get the idea) as both section marker and first definition, and goes on to add new musical, chemical, physical, and sociological definitions of the one-letter word. But what, the reader might wonder, is French pitch? Who identified the A above middle C as 435 vibrations per second? How many readers understood the reference to Aeolian and hypoaeolian modes? Were they musicians, or scientists? Thank goodness for the ampere, given to us by a man whose name has already been on the Eiffel Tower since 1887; were it not for the inclusion of that term, and A-level, I’d feel a complete dunce, and we’re only on page one!

A-LevelSo I flip over to A-level, because I’m interested to know when that term for British school-leaving exams arose, and even as I’m flipping, I think, hang on; this is an American dictionary. And sure enough, in American, A-level refers to “a leveling instrument used for grading earth-work, leveling ditches, etc.” The A refers to its shape.

Immediately below that, though, is the name of one branch of my family, in lower case, used as a verb (v. t.). Sir Jerome Alexander was a bloodthirsty fella, back in Ireland in the seventeenth century. To alexander someone is to treat them harshly; to cause their death by cruel and merciless means. I can disavow Sir Jerome with a clear conscience, because my family of that name were all from Scotland before they went to Africa. Thank goodness it was a rare usage then, and obsolete now, and thank goodness also that alexanders is also a noun; they are a a flower, purple or yellow. Given that they are native to the northeastern US, it’s unlikely they ever decorated the graves of the “Presbyterians and other nonconformists” who fell to Sir Joseph’s merciless judgments, so regrettably, we are denied that irony.

(With apologies for the terrible scan. My scanner is being temperamental today, and scanning odd things if I try to press the book to the platen to improve the image. Gah. )

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