Tag Archives: references


Some people learn a thing, know it, and act like they know it. They apply the knowledge scrupulously. Others learn a thing and, as soon as they think no one is going to be checking up on them, stop acting like they know it. They do whatever they want and expect others to accommodate them.

My two favourite examples of this split are driving and bibliographic citations. I think we all know that there are many people who stopped paying attention to basic traffic laws the day after they got their licence. Editors – most if not all – know too that there are many university-educated people who must have learned how to do a proper bibliographic reference according to a standard style, but who, the moment they weren’t being graded, stopped caring, even if they’re writing things that require references. They might give the last name and the date and nothing more, or they might just paste in a link. Occasionally an editor will get a gem of the order of “Google search.” The only questions remaining for the editor on such occasions are “How do I clean up the author’s blood and where should I bury his body parts?”

Any user of bibliographic references – a person who actually looks up the works cited (the normal term for this kind of person is “grad student”) – will come to detest the lazy citations Op cit. and perhaps even Ibid., especially if all the bib refs are in footnotes and not in a References section. And yet there is something enviable about such insouciance or chutzpah. An editor who has spent hours tracking down the full details of articles sloppily cited will surely wish she or he could just put “It is known.”

Well, why not? Of course, everything is better in Latin, at least when you’re trying to impress. If you say something in Latin, the ordinary person will ask what you mean, but scholars – the people who would actually bother seeing the bib ref in the first place – may be afraid to admit they don’t know what it means. So I present to you, for use on special occasions, the Latin for “It is known”: Scitur.

Yes, one word: Latin has passive inflection available. Latin conjugations are a wonder. You can even use a third-person future imperative passive: scitor. It’s very difficult to translate into English, but a hack job would be “I command that it come to be known.”

Your next question may be how this word scitur is pronounced. Well. Latin has several different standards. It was a living language for quite a long time, and changed during that time; then it became a semi-living language, an enforced second language for many people with divers first languages; then it came to be taught in schools to pupils who were eager to forget it as soon as they could, and the pronunciations came under the spell of the phonotactic perversities of the first language of the teachers. Add to all this the fact that the i in scitur is long (and so is often written with a line over it in texts). So…

If you want the classical pronunciation, it’s somewhere between “skeeter” and “ski tour.” The c was hard in classical Latin, and the u was like in put.

If you want the vulgate pronunciation, it’s as above but with “she” in place of “ski” – the “sk” before a high front vowel softened to become “sh” (by the way, there was no point at which it was “s-ch”; the change of “k” to “ch” happened at the same time as the change of “sk” to “sh,” not prior to it).

If you want the Mister Chips pronunciation – the pronunciation of the British classicists for centuries up to the early 20th, following the same sound changes as the English language suffered in medieval times – I think it would be “sigh tur.” The i is long, as I said, and the Mister Chips version interprets that as an English “long i,” which is really a diphthong.

You could also go with a modern compromise and say it like “seater.”

Or you could not say it at all. It’s text. Let it speak for itself.

Which reminds me of the other perfect bibliographic citation for lazy people: Res ipsa loquitur. It’s a term used normally in law, but if lawyers can use it, why not scholars too? It actually uses the passive conjugation; a calque would be “[the] thing for itself is spoken.” But idiomatic English is “the thing speaks for itself.”

Yes, yes it does. It is known.

A more delectable dictionary

Imagine a cookbook that only gave the ingredients for each recipe, with no instructions on how to put them together. Many dictionaries are like that: nothing but bare-bones denotative definitions for the words.

Now imagine a cookbook that included not just the instructions, not just different variants on how you can make the recipe, not even just menu suggestions and beverage matching suggestions, but also other recipes it would go with or remind you of or definitely not go with, and even things the food could or would make you think of – other dishes it would remind you of, other times and places and people.

I would like to have a dictionary that does all that for words.

Of course much of that is individual. Every word is one of Proust’s Madeleines, a key to places you have heard it and seen it and used it before. The way it sounds and how you feel about those sounds will provoke you differently from how it provokes others. But there are several aspects of a word’s extended meaning that users will have in common. Most of them show up in one kind of dictionary or another, but not all, and not all in the same place. Let’s look at how a dictionary that covers a fuller ambit of meaning and effect would handle… let’s say the words dude and fellow.


An important dimension of words is what they say about the speaker, the hearer, the subject, and the relation between them – what effect the speaker is trying to have on the hearer and what he or she is saying about what’s going on between them and any third party spoken of.

dude: Casual, informal. Friendly or mildly contemptuous, depending on overall relationship constructed. As an emphatic vocative, expressing some kind of amazement within a pointedly informal frame. (Read this good article by J.J. Gould for more.)

fellow: Intended to be neutral, but can be more formal, often with a taste of condescension.


Register is a key concept in sociolinguistics: your choice of vocabulary and syntax bespeaks a specific situation – it’s like putting on different clothes for different places and activities: clubbing, visiting family, working at the office, working in a hospital, etc. Words are known by the company they keep. Most dictionaries won’t go beyond saying something is formal, or colloquial, or medical jargon, if they go that far. But there is always more that can be said.

dude: Tends to be laddish, often with a sense of drug, surfer, or frat-boy culture; cowboy speech is also possible. Cannot be used for formal registers, except in archaic senses (meaning dandy or greenhorn).

fellow: Broadly usable, but in youthful and casual contexts may sound old-fashioned or formal. Suitable for friendly or pseudo-friendly versions of more formal speech. As a title (e.g., Fellow of the Royal Society), suitable for the most formal speech.


Many words have well-known travelling companions – common collocations, as linguists say. These are a word’s circle of close friends. There are dictionaries of collocations, often meant for students of English to help them know how to match their ties and socks, so to speak; there are also corpus databases that list words that tend to show up more often with them. Here are some results (mutatis mutandis) taken from www.wordandphrase.info:

dude: cool, fucking, sorry, funny, awesome, skinny, tall, like, weird, straight, ranch, dude, surfer, shit, fuck, chick, Chicano

fellow: senior, young, old, little, poor, visiting, postdoctoral, fine, nice, honorary, research, craft

Cultural references (including quotations)

Some words have the ability to call forth films or books or historical moments. Berliner can make a person think of Kennedy; cheeseburger can make many people think of endearing kittens with captions; frankly can call up Gone with the Wind. Traditional sources such as Bartlett’s should be complemented with current culture resources such as knowyourmeme.com and the auto-complete in Google searches (which can also be good for collocations). Note that fellow (noun) may arguably call forth references to fellow (adjective).

dude: Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski (quote: “The Dude abides”); Dude, Where’s My Car? (movie); “Dude Looks Like a Lady” (song)

fellow: “Hail fellow, well met” (Jonathan Swift); “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (Shakespeare); “fellow traveller” (mid-20th-century euphemism for Communist sympathizer); “Write me as one who loves his fellow-men” (Leigh Hunt, “Abou Ben Adhem”); “my fellow Americans” (standard in US political speeches)


Etymology is not inherent in our experience of a word; many people are quite oblivious to where their words come from, even as many – often some of the same – have the mistaken idea that a word’s “true” meaning is determined by its “original” meaning. But if you have an idea of a word’s origins, it will influence how you think of the word. This is true whether your idea is accurate or inaccurate. The words picnic and nitty-gritty are poisoned for many people who have false beliefs about their origins; the same people would never use bulldoze again if they knew where it came from – but most of them don’t. Many dictionaries supply etymological information, so I invite you to look it up on your own! And you will find that sometimes not all that much is known.

Rhymes and other echoes

Words will make us think of other words. Not just synonyms, which thesauruses and some dictionaries handily provide. And not just rhymes, which have their own dictionaries. There are other echoes that may contribute in some measure to the effect of a word – words that the word has some resemblance to in sound or appearance. Some non-rhyme examples:

dude: dud, dead, dad, deed, pube, dada, dildo, doobie, redo, stupid

fellow: fallow, follow, fuller, filler, fell, fail, allow, hello, willow, well, low, flow, cellophane


And then there’s the issue of the aesthetic effects of sound qualities, still a bit controversial, but some effects are well known, such as the association of high front vowels with smaller things.

dude: The main vowel sound is a low, hollow sound (it has the lowest resonances of all the vowel sounds), often associated with dullness and stupidity; the d sounds are not as crisp as t sounds but are on the tip of the tongue, which makes them comparatively light.

fellow: The e is fairly open and bright, while the l is soft and liquid, and the f is the quietest of the fricatives; the final ow is darker and more withdrawn but allows sustain.

Obviously a dictionary that included all of this would be rather thick, and would take a long time to put together. Some of it might benefit to some extent from a wiki-style approach, though one does have to be careful. But any added attention to these aspects of how a word communicated would help us all be more fully conscious and engaged users of the language – and would surely make our words more delectable.