Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One Letter Words: A Dictionary by Craig Conley.

One Letter Words: A Dictionary by Craig Conley.  Hardcover book published 2005.

I first saw this book at a friends house a few months ago.  It was sitting on his shelf amidst a collection of Latin and Yiddish dictionaries (that’s 2 different sorts of dictionaries although if there was a “Latin Yiddish, Yiddish Latin” dictionary, I’m sure he would have it) and various other books looking at the use of language (Eats, Shoots & Leaves etc. being one of the more popular titles).  I had a good look at it and thought to myself this is a very strange book…

Anyway, a few weeks after that, and Huc & Gabet had acquired a copy.  Casually over dinner with a few other friends, I mentioned this book... obviously it had stuck in my mind or why else would I mention this book over all the others I had recently acquired… and why else would I write about it here.  Friend No.1 (a bookseller) was amazed and excited indicating that he would be eagerly awaiting a copy to hit his shelves.  Friend No.2 (a scientist) claimed it was obviously a sham and not a worthy tome.  Both of these people had never seen the book.  Upon reflection, I believe both of these comments are appropriate.   

I think as a dictionary it fails.  The book is set out like a dictionary but possibly a little less formal.  It has the word dictionary in the title because… it is a dictionary, but as crazy as this may sound it isn’t really a dictionary.  Lets look at the word “O”.  There are 62 listings under “O”, to get a meaning you need to read 8 pages of text.  Granted the book has divided up the definitions into categories… but still, for a quick look up in the dictionary I think it fails, it is a sham.  As a look at the use of language particularly in print, I think it is interesting, if that’s what your interested in. 

My friend who has the book on his shelf is very interested in the use of language and language in general (truely a man of letters)… which I guess is why it’s on his shelf.  So I asked him via email if he had used the book as a “dictionary”.  His response: “I've never actually looked up a word/letter in it.  I read it from cover to cover once.”  I think this is a conformation of my thoughts on the book and on the comments of No.1 and No.2.  As a dictionary this book is a sham, a dictionary it’s not.  As a book about language and words, it is interesting and  entertaining… something to peruse and enjoy, for the sake of perusement and enjoyment.  So… peruse and enjoy.    


  1. I sure do hope your definition of "dictionary" doesn't reach the ears of Ammon Shea, author of _Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages_, since he read the Oxford English Dictionary cover to cover, for enjoyment!

  2. As I understand your argument (or perhaps it is No. 2's argument), a key premise is that a "proper" dictionary must contain the definitions for any word entry on a single page (or perhaps some number of pages fewer than eight -- as you wrote your objection, "to get a meaning you need to read 8 pages of text"). If you search for the word "set" on dictionary.com, you'll see that the word has over 100 definitions. So by extension, you would be forced to admit that either (1) dictionary.com is not a dictionary, or (2) the word "set" is not a word. I'm frankly dumbfounded by the logic here.

  3. Bravo, sir! You are a maverick in the very best sense of the word. Unencumbered by the rules and traditions of ordinary language, your argument shakes the very foundations of literacy and reason. Where others cower before the arrogant, popular definitions of "dictionary, or "book," you remain defiant, and altogether unwilling to capitulate.

    So many have misinterpreted the true nature of Mr. Conley's book (Publishers Weekly, Chicago Tribune, New York Post, Associated Press, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, "Top 100 Dictionary Sites," Daily Mail and Guardian, etc.) yet you have somehow managed to rise above their mediocrity.

    Bravo I say!

  4. Hello Eidolon,
    Thank you so much for commenting on my brief comments (notice the word “comments” as apposed to “arguments”). There are a few things you didn’t mention about my blog entry in your reply. Firstly my comment “for a quick look up in the dictionary” and “As a look at the use of language particularly in print, I think it is interesting”. I think you are right my logic is a little dumbfounding overall and possibly I could have elaborated a little more. My blog entries are at times just my thoughts and ramblings and are obviously not the works of a person concerned with all of the uses of one letter words (my limited one letter word vocabulary is perfect evidence of this). My point upon reflection is that the book appears to me to be more of an entertainment and the use of the book as such by my friend that owns the book is the main reason I believe this to be so. Possibly my friend is the exception… but I get the feeling he’s not. The publishers blurb indicates that it is a reference book and should be used as such… I guess this is all just opinion on my behalf and as I write in my personal brief blurb “Agree or disagree, all of this is just my opinion.” Finally I want to make it clear that I think this a great book and one of great interest… particularly if your wanting to check the spelling of the letter “C” or wanting to check out the use of the word “X” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show… seriously I do think it is a great book and of great interest. Why else would I write about it.
    All the best and thanks again

  5. Hi Eccentric Scholar,
    I hope it does reach his ears and then possibly he'll write another book about this book. It is just as interesting. Re my definition of a "quick look up in the dictionary", i think most people would use something other than the OED... for a quick reference. Maybe i'm wrong, but i'm not an "eccentric scholar" or the author of this book and by the way... I think your book is great.
    All the best and thanks for noticing this humble blog.

  6. Hi Jeff,
    mmmm. Your comments are very interesting (and appreciated) and i think possibly you have taken my comments a little too seriously. This blog is not a serious critical review or comment on books, it is just my opinion as a bookseller... and as Eidolon mentions in his comments, lacking a little in logic. I thank you for mentioning me in the same breath as all the learned references that you mentioned... my humble ego remains humble and has not expanded.
    Thanks again for your comments and for noticing this blog.