Category Archives: Words

Pretty Little Tiny Kickshaws

It’s been awhile since I picked up Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary and, when I got it in my head to look at it this morning, my search led me into a massive reorganization of a few bookcases, leading me to once again ponder: Is there such a thing as too many books?

I didn’t ponder for too long, though, I now have one reorganized bookcase and several more stacks around the house awaiting me to continue this project tomorrow. But, Johnson’s Dictionary was found and provided a bit of a respite from the dust in my bookcases.

If you don’t know Johnson’s work, but only know of it, you need to get your hands on a copy. It is fascinating reading. Coleridge called it a “most instructive and entertaining book” and I couldn’t agree more. Lord Macaulay is also quoted in the introduction to the edition I own (1) as stating that it is “the first dictionary which could be read with pleasure. The definitions show so much acuteness of thought and command of language, and the passages quoted from poets, divines and philosophers are so skillfully selected, that a leisure hour may always be very agreeably spent in turning over the pages.” I won’t fess up how much time I spent with dear Johnson’s dictionary today, but let it suffice to say that I might have made more progress on my bookcases had I not thumbed through as many pages as I did.

One of the things that makes Johnson’s Dictionary so entertaining to read are the quotations used as examples of the definitions.   By far the most quoted author was Shakespeare, who Johnson said was useful for “the diction of common life”.  So, in keeping with the A to Z challenge — and because April is the month of Shakespeare’s birth & death — here are a few words beginning with the letter ‘K‘  which use the Bard’s word as examples.

Stacks and stacks and stacks....

ken n.s, [from the verb.]
View; reach of sight.

Lo! within a ken, our army lies. ~ Henry IV.

When from the mountain top
Pisanio shew’d thee,

Thou wast within a ken. ~ Cymbeline

kern n.s. [an Irish word.]
Irish foot soldier; an Irish boor.

No sooner justice had with valour arm’d,
Compell’d these skipping kerns to trust their heels,
But the Norweyan lord, surveying advantage,
Began a fresh assault. ~ MacBeth

Kickshaw n.s. [This word is supposed, I think with truth, to be only a corruption of quelque chose, something; yet Milton seems to have understood it otherwise; for he writes it kickshoe, and seems to think it used in contempt of dancing.]

1. something uncommon; fantastical; something ridiculous.

2. A dish so changed by the cookery that it can scarcely be known.

Some pigeons, a couple of short-legged hens,
a joint of mutton, and any pretty little tiny kickshaws.
~ Henry IV.

Kicksy-wicksey n.s [from kick and wince.]
A made word in ridicule and disdain of a wife. Hanmer.

He wears his honor in a box, unseens,
That hugs his kicksy-wicksey here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms. ~ All’s Well That Ends Well

kidney n.s [etymology unknown.]

2. Race; kind; in ludicrous langauge.

Think of that, a man of my kidney; think of that, that am as subject to heat as butter;
a man of continual dissolution and thaw.
~ Merry Wives of Windsor

kind n.s [cynne, Saxon.]

4. Nature; natural determination.

The skillful shepherd peel’d me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deed of kind,
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes. ~ The Merchant of Venice

5. Manner; way.
Send me your prisoners with the speediest means,
Or you shall hear in such a kind from me
As will displease you.
~ Henry IV

kitchenwench n.s. [kitchen and wench.]
Scullion; maid employed to clean the instruments of cookery.

Laura to his lady was but a kitchenwench. ~ Romeo and Juliet

knowledge n.s. [from know]
2. Learning; illumination of the mind.

Ignorance is the curse of God,
Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heav’n ~ 2 Henry IV

3. Skill in any thing.

Do but say to me what I should do,
That in your knowledge may by me be done,
And I am prest unto it. ~ Merchant of Venice

4. Acquaintance with any fact or person.

That is not forgot,
Which ne’er I did remember; to my knowledge
I never in my life did look on him. ~ Richard II

Kern, Kicksy-Wicksey, and Kitchenwench may no longer be the “diction of common life”, but it is still fun to read about them.

1.  Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, Selections from the 1755 work that defined the English Language, edited by Jack Lynch, published by Levenger Press, 2004.

This post is part of the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Today’s letter is K. Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. You can find other A to Z participants by clicking on the graphic. You’ll find an index of all of my A to Z blog posts here.

For WordNerds & those with strong feelings about the word “asshat”

This is a link to an interesting interview with Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the new American Heritage Dictionary. This is the first of interviewer June Thomas’ The Afterword podcasts for Slate. Although the headline suggests that the interview is mostly about the future of print dictionaries, the conversation covers all things wordy, including Mr. Kleinedler thumbing through the new dictionary looking for interesting combinations of guide words. Much fun!

To Verb

I’m a list maker. Lists not only help me to remember those pesky tasks that I need to do (oh dammit! like the insurance forms!), but also they record — and sometime prompt — ideas for things that I want to explore in the future.

I saw this Verb List recently in a Richard Serra exhibit. I seem to recall it was at The Metropolitan Museum, but it is owned by MoMA, so it could be that I’m confused as to where I saw it. I did see the retrospective of Serra’s drawings at the Metropolitan in August — and I was at MoMA in late September. Regardless of where I saw this, it caught my attention and stuck with me.

As I looked at the list closely, I fell in love with the long list of verbs, verbs that could be used to describe lots of things, including Serra’s work: to cut, to fold… to smear, to rotate, to swirl…to enclose, to surround, to encircle…. I was confused when the list, seemingly at random, switches from the infinitives to prepositions: of inertia, of gravity, of simultaneity… Wait! Is that a word? If not, it should be… of tides, of reflection, of mapping, of context.

Today, not having thought of this piece for several weeks, I saw a link to this post on MoMA’s website.. The post discusses how Serra created this list — and then worked from it. The prepositional of phrases are not random at all; they are the context in which he might utilize the verb. It isn’t merely a brainstormed list of words, but a guideline, a prompt, for his future work.

The article includes a link to this multimedia piece that Serra did. One might think that you could waste some time exploring this site, when you could be doing something else, but that would be wrong. Click through the links; you’ll be glad that you did!

Halves of Lives

I read yesterday, on a Facebook friend’s page, a comment about the second half of life — and, after an acknowledgement of a deficit in math skills — hopes for what the third half of life might hold. This idea of a third half of life — perhaps even a fourth — has taken hold in my thoughts. Halves, not fractions, is key, I think, as our lives are infinitely fractured. But halves, well, that implies a cohesiveness to a part, something finite, time-bound, even if only in retrospect.

I don’t know how long I will muse upon this idea. Perhaps it is the beginning of a short story — or middle, or end, or somewhere.

Once upon a time I lived the first half of my life. Then, before I was aware it had even started, I was almost through with the second half. Now, I begin the third half having learned that I know little of what has passed, and don’t have any ideas about what is to come.

Not real pleased with that, totally lacking in any interesting detail, but better (*) will come if I follow this, taming with pen and paper whatever story is out there in the wilds.

(Note 1: Sometimes, I like starting with “Once upon a time” to get past that first word on a page, even if those words never make it into any kind of final draft. Isn't everything once upon a time? Or never upon a time? Didn’t it work when we were six? And, this probably has something to do with time, although not chronology.

Note 2: Hat tip to the Facebook professor. His “betters” inspire attempts at improvement.)
Or maybe there isn’t a story waiting to be captured.

Maybe this idea of the third half of one’s life will worm its way into an essay. I think this as I sit, waiting, watching for the inevitable death rattles, of my son’s grandfather. Disease and dementia have overtaken his frail body. The first half of his life, he was the aviator-hero, Distinquished Flying Cross recipient, chest full of brass. The second half of his life he earned awards of a different kind for making smiles, teaching reading and shooing bees from his 5th grade classroom, and trying to give to his grandsons what he did not give to his sons. Now, in the third half of his life, the kalidiscope constantly changes, mixing memory fragments into newly patterned landscapes, beautiful gardens in their pieces but on the whole, dark waking nightmare forests without any waypoints along the trail. This third half is comprised of pieces of who he is, but it is not who he was. Neither a beginning nor a fair and fitting end. As fragmented as his memory is, this third half is still a whole part.

Shapeshifting in early morning light.

Right words

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. — Mark Twain

I was reminded of this quote this evening as I started to read Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. (This is the inscription inside the cover page.)

Twain’s comment is perfect, both in form and in meaning. He doesn’t catch the lightning bug, he captures the lighting. And he uses every right word to write that sentence, proving his point.

Writing is about the right word. Sometimes you want the lightening. Suspense. A chasm that opens into the black night, illuminating the angry clouds. The loud crack, the flash of light, the smell of the air burning. Other times, you want the lightening bug. Magical. Smile-inducing. Flitting here and there, with no direction or care. Its little green belly writing summertime across the lawns.

“We must learn to imagine what we already know.” — Percy Bysshe Shelley

The right word depends on the circumstance. You know it when you’ve written it, the one that you have imagined. The one that tells everything that you know. The one that is absolutely perfect.

>Words on Wednesday

>Another word game this week:

Found here, with new words appearing each Sunday.

There are no rules to this game.

A free association list of 10 words. Read; react; write!

  1. Flicker :: photos
  2. Styling :: haircuts
  3. Episode :: two-year old meltdown
  4. Sexier :: desirous, wandering heart
  5. Studious :: contemplative, library, quiet, solitude
  6. Mushroom :: fungus lady at the farmer’s market
  7. 8 minutes :: time to get back to work
  8. Bald :: eagle, mountain, head
  9. Immunity :: immigration policies; sanctuary
  10. Sectioned :: bleachers WTF? Why did I think of that? At least I’ve been honest with this, writing the first thing I think.

Found via this blog.

Another item of worthy wordiness: this week’s topic at A Word A Day (AWAD) is words about words and language. Upon glancing at the subject line of my Word A Day email yesterday, not reading closely, I thought the word was catechesis. Funny since the word was catachresis. If you don’t know Anu Garg’s A Word A Day, check it out. Join over 640,000 word lovers from more than 200 countries who receive AWAD daily and know that the New York Times got it right when it wrote that AWAD was “the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace.

>Words on Wednesday: Writing Prompt

>I stumbled across this site recently. One Word presents daily a single word writing prompt that is revealed when you press the Comment button. There is a 60 second timer that gently chimes (so much nicer than a clanking buzzer or gong) when the time has elapsed. Unlike timed standardized tests, you get to finish the sentence you’re writing before posting.

I have used this recently for two purposes:
1. It’s a good warm-up exercise before one starts to write.
2. Although it’s only a minute, it’s a great way to procrastinate while at work!

I don’t spend too much time looking at what others have left. Like my own quickly jotted notes, most aren’t very complete, and some are painful (or painfully boring) to read. I like this site and think I will continue to be a regular visitor for my daily one word dose.

Several months ago, I decided to start an occasional post on words, language, and writing on Wednesdays, that day chosen for the obvious reason of the alliterative sound of ‘Words on Wednesday’. But, I haven’t followed through with that idea and, in fact, have only posted on Wednesdays four times this year. Only two of those posts were even remotely about language and writing. Maybe, the occasional — okay, I’ll be truthful: sporadic — Words on Wednesdays will appear with a bit more frequency in the future, but no promises! I have at least one post perculating about playing word games like Scrabble.

>Top Contender for Worst Book I’ve Read This Year

>I tried — really tried — to finish Holding Her Head High: 12 single mothers who championed their children and changed history, by Janine Turner (a book I received as a review copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program) but I can’t do it. When you find you are reading with the purpose of counting the number of cliches per chapter, there is no point in wasting any more of your time. I had begun to feel like a roadside gawker at horrible highway accident.

For the record, in the chapters I read, the phrase — as if you might not remember the title of the book — holding her head high was used an average of 4 times per chapter. Maximum chapter High Head Count: 8. If that doesn’t give you a sense of the tediousness of this book, I might discourage you with the following: improper use of quotations, misspelled words, poor (or wrong!) word choice, dull sentence structure, sloppy research, an inappropriately casual narrative voice, repetitive paragraphs, and poor organization. In general, it reads like a 8th grade term paper — one that would get an ‘C’ from a burned-out easy grader.

How anyone could make the lives of some of the women profiled (Helena Augusta, Christine De Pizan, Abigal Adams*) boring is surprising. More surprising still is that this book was published (although I’d guess that Turner being a Hollywood actress may have had some influence on the book deal). Some LT reviewers commented that this book should have been marketed differently (as a devotional rather than a sociological or history work), suggesting that for a different audience it would fare better. I don’t think so; poor writing is poor writing. A sad comment to make about a book with a topic that suggests that it could be so much more.

(*Note: Please don’t bother to correct me about A. Adams. I know that Abigal Adams wasn’t a single mother; John Adams outlived his wife. But, because she raised her children by herself during the Revolutionary War and Adams’ ambassadorial trips to Europe, Turner chose to include her in this work. There are other profiles in this book that are, arguably, not about single mothers.)

>Wednesday: Words and Winter

>I read recently that the collective noun for Ravens was an unkindness of ravens. “Before or after Hitchcock made that movie?”, I thought.

This led me to a search engine to confirm. While I can’t find a definitive origin (I’m sure it’s out there, but I didn’t look extensively), I did find that there are numerous collective nouns for birds.

How about a murder of crows? Or a siege of bitterns? Others include:

a wake of buzzards
a cast of falcons
a confusion of guinea fowl
a kettle of hawks (Dinner, anyone?)
a parliament of owls
a congress of eagles
an exultation of skylarks

I thought a A Unkindness of Ravens, A Murder of Crows might make a good title for a mystery. I don’t read mysteries, but I wasn’t surprised when I queried Amazon that I found results. Ruth Rendell wrote a book called An Unkindness of Ravens; Cuba Gooding starred in a movie in 2000 called A Murder of Crows. More on collective nouns for birds can be found here.


Winter is still a few weeks away, but we had our first snowfall overnight. I love the first snow of the year: new, fresh, bright, the whiteness of it all. I like celebrating the cycles of the seasons and snow, rather than ice or cold, is the sign of winter to me. I like to be reminded of it, but I would be happy if winter only lasted a few days and then we could get on with it. Snow that melts after a few hours is the best kind. Today’s was like that, at least on the roadways. I had to grab my camera to capture the snow before it melted away:

The thick wet snow coating the limbs of the trees:

The last few green leaves on the undergrowth, struggling against the elements:

Chimneys seem purposeful. I like the monochromaticism of this picture, all whites and grey. A plume of smoke would have been perfect!

The abandoned, seasonal bench on the front porch, where it isn’t too welcoming at this time of year:

The beauty of a single leaf upon the new snow: