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Confessions of a cisgender logophile

I am amazed and thrilled that there are still so many new words to learn. Some of them actually are new words – recently coined to name a new product, invention, discovery or idea – and some of them (these are the ones I really like) are simply words in the English language that I, in my fairly long life, have not yet encountered. Readers of this blog will have figured out that I have a love affair with words. In order to be able to tell you that, I sought out a new word and found "logophile" – one who loves words. I love words that rhyme, alliterative words that the reader or speaker can almost taste as they roll off the tongue, funny words that make you snicker when you say or hear them (did you know that a winklepicker is a shoe or boot with a sharply pointed toe?), words that, through simple combinations, create images beautiful or sad or wildly original.

I recently encountered the word "cisgender," new to me, although it was coined in 1994. It means a person whose gender identity is the same as the gender they were assigned at birth. (Remember the simple days of "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!"? Everything has gotten so complicated…) "Cis" is derived from a Latin prefix meaning "on this side of." "Cisgender" is the opposite of "transgender" (since "trans" means "to move across.") The correct way for me to introduce myself now in some circles would be, "Hello, I'm Deborah, a cisgender female. My pronouns are she and her."

Let's move on.

Ben MacIntyre is an author who writes narrative histories of British spies. They are wonderful books, full of intrigue and history and delicious, juicy words. Reading his book Agent Sonya, The Spy Next Door, I came upon three words I had never encountered before. (Does this make me weird? That I get excited by having to run to a dictionary while engrossed in reading?) On page 24 we read that pre-WWII Shanghai was "a place of sweatshops, textile mills and tenements, rife with disease and despair, and pullulating with political resentment." Pullulating. Huh. One can get the sense of it from the context, but what fun it is to look it up: multiplying or spreading rapidly, teeming with. Cool.

On page 31 we meet a spy who is an authority on Chinese politics and "frequently delivered long disquisitions on the subject." Again, it's pretty clear from the context, but still great fun to confirm its meaning: a long or elaborate essay or discussion on a particular subject.

And on page 77 we read that a certain German communist who wrote voluminously inspired a fellow comrade to say that he found the writer's "prolixity a little wearing." Once again, the meaning is clear from the context, but I still rushed delightedly to the dictionary to confirm that prolixity is the noun form of the adjective prolix: using or containing too many words; tediously lengthy. (Unlike these blog posts. Right?)

Some of you, gentle readers, may find this annoying. Why are there so darn many words in English? It is impossible to know for sure, but many linguists theorize that English has more words than any other language in the world. The topic is complex. English is the international language and has added words from other languages throughout its history. Some who try to answer the question of which language has the most words have adopted a starkly simple method: they measure dictionaries (ours is the biggest. Size matters). The Oxford and Webster's dictionary at this time contain about half a million words. New words are added to dictionaries with each new edition. How are new entries decided upon? At Merriam Webster there are editors assigned to spend time every day reading a cross-section of books, newspapers, magazines and online materials. They mark new words and new usages, collect them in citation files and bring them to editorial meetings, where the decision will be made which new words to include. To be chosen for inclusion, a word must be cited in print a significant number of times, by a variety of sources, over a considerable length of time.

The word "cisgender," coined in 1994, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. The word "logophile" is rare enough that it is not found in many dictionaries, though it has been around since the early 1900's. It is made from two Greek roots, logo, meaning "word" or "speech," and philos, meaning "lover of" or "enthusiast for."

Words capture and express feelings, they communicate ideas, they shape and are shaped by culture. And they can just be so darned much fun.

I will leave you with the words of another logophile, the British-Canadian poet Robert W. Service.

If on isle of the sea I have to tarry, With one book, let it be A Dictionary. For though I love life's scene, It seems absurd, My greatest joy has been The printed word. Though painter with delight May colours blend, They are but in his sight Means to an end. Yet while I harmonise Or pattern them, A precious word I prize Like to a gem. A fiddler lures fine tone From gut and wood; A sculptor from stark stone Shapes godlihood. But let me just caress, Like silver birds, For their own loveliness-- Bewitching words.

Till next time.

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Nov 16, 2021

Thank you for yet another beautifully written blog!

As a fellow logophile, I share your admiration for words and Robert W. Service's enchantment with them. We can track the notion that words are magical all the way back to the Book of Genesis (2:19), where:

"G-d had formed every wild beast and every bird of heaven... He brought them to man to see what he would name each one. Whatever the man called each living thing would remain its name".

In this sense, humans have a role in the magic of creation by coining new words, and the alphabet becomes sacred. Also interesting is that while giving names to all living creatures, there is a realization that "for man, h…

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What a lovely and interesting comment! Thank you so much, Nili.

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