Reading the Dictionary

Charles Hodgson, host of Podictionary, the podcast for word lovers, e-mailed me a few weeks ago to ask whether I’d like a copy of his Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia. (That’s the subtitle; the main title is Carnal Knowledge. And while I’m on the subject of titles, I love the fact that HTML distinguishes between book titles and other things you italicize, by using the <cite> tag. Of course, some style sheets render <cite> and <em> using something other than italics. But I digress.)

Of course I said yes. As a writer and a student of languages, sitting down to read a dictionary is just the kind of thing I like to do. Though I no longer read Greek and Latin for a living, I remain a philologist in the root sense of the word.

Podictionary provides “the surprising histories of words you thought you knew.” Carnal Knowledge provides words both familiar and unfamiliar, from polysyllabic medical terminology to the crudest of slang. It includes one word invented by the author: “eyedema”, meaning the bags under your eyes (from “edema”, which means “swelling”).

Hodgson even discusses the lines read by palmists, though there’s an error in the entry for “head line”: the word “linen” comes not from “line” but from Greek linos, which means “flax”. Which makes you wonder a bit about the Linos who was the son of Apollo, but that’s another story. This caught my eye because I was reading the lambda section in my Greek dictionary the other day, and I verified the etymology of “linen” at, because I’m such a natural-born pedant that I can’t keep from doing things like that.

My biggest laugh so far has been the emoticons based on the word “ass.” Somehow, despite being online since 1985, I had never encountered these.

Carnal Knowledge is a highly entertaining and informative book. For a dictionary, it’s a surprisingly quick read. Amazon says it will be available as of August 7th, but you can pre-order it now. If you want to bone up on your anatomy, pick up a copy and start thumbing through it.

Carnal Knowledge: A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia. St Martin’s Press, New York, 2007.

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