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BACK 40: The universe in alphabetical order

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By Chrysti M. Smith Explore Big Sky Contributor

“A dictionary,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning French poet and novelist Anatole France, “is the universe in alphabetical order.”

Discovering that universe requires a patient mind and a tolerance for solitude. Like most writers, I spend a lot of time alone while I work, surrounded by dictionaries and other wordbooks whose pages I ruffle over and over as I explore their universes. It is arduous, delightful work.

In 1989, I developed a radio series called “Chrysti the Wordsmith” at KGLT-FM, Montana State University’s campus radio station. Since its 1968 debut, KGLT has instructed hundreds of students and community members in broadcasting. It may also be the only radio station in the country that would allow a young student with no experience to launch an untried radio show about words and dictionaries.

My goal in developing Chrysti the Wordsmith was to create an environment in which I’d be challenged to learn more about the stories hidden within the English language, and to share that knowledge with anyone who cared to listen. KGLT staff and generous mentors helped me realize that goal, teaching me to write graceful sentences for radio scripts and training my voice to dance with the microphone.

Seeking material for the radio series has sent me again and again to the pages of my serviceable Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Turning the pages, I’ve met some hard-working pragmatists: “fish,” “code” and “boom;” exotic adoptees: “chateau,” “howdah,” “zeitgeist” and “keiretsu;” and technical polysyllables: “duopoly,” “panleukopenia” and “characterological.”

My Merriam-Webster’s, like any good compendium, includes each word’s definition, pronunciation and inflected forms. Best of all, though, this dictionary provides each term’s etymology, or its particular linguistic biography.

Etymology traces a word as far back as possible in the English language, and along that journey stories emerge. Take the word “zeitgeist,” which is borrowed wholesale from the German term literally meaning “time-spirit” and refers to the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era. In English, we might call this concept “the spirit of the times,” but it seems that by 1835, English speakers agreed to adopt the more economical German term.

This kind of information thrills me to the core, and I’ve spent 25 years in pursuit of this bliss. After gleaning such stories from the pages of hundreds of dictionaries and related wordbooks, I craft this etymological information into a narrative manuscript of approximately 225 words. With evangelical zeal, I then broadcast the word over the radio waves.

Among my favorite words to research are “eponyms,” people’s names that have become common terms. There are hundreds of these words in the English language, giving me a nearly inexhaustible supply of material. Eponym studies also involve the life histories of both words and people, a winning combination for storytelling. These common terms were inspired by the lives, deeds and names of people throughout history: “diesel,” “Fahrenheit,” “Braille,” “sandwich,” “masochism,” “boysenberry,” “maverick” and “Stetson.”

Other word lovers are also fascinated by such name-words, and have compiled books of eponyms with titles such as “The Dictionary of Eponyms;” “Marvelous Monikers;” “Word People;” and “Medicine, Literature and Eponyms.” These books have provided delightful, valuable information for many Chrysti the Wordsmith episodes.

To hear stories about words, people and the universe as found in dictionaries, tune in to Chrysti the Wordsmith locally on KGLT-FM, 91.9, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at noon and 6 p.m, and Yellowstone Public Radio, 102.1 (Bozeman) and 95.9 (Big Sky) Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m. Chrysti the Wordsmith is also currently syndicated on KCPR in Salt Lake City and worldwide on Armed Forces Radio and Television Network.


This is a script from the Chrysti the Wordsmith radio program that was first broadcast in 2007.

Boycott: A boycott is an organized protest in which the participants abstain from buying or using products from, or dealing with, a particular organization.

There is a long list of high-profile boycotts throughout history. In the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi encouraged a boycott of British made goods throughout India to protest colonial rule of the country.

The term boycott is an eponym, or a word derived from a proper name, and the story behind its coinage is well documented.

In 1880, retired English military captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was appointed to manage some British-held estates in County Mayo, Ireland. The local farm tenants, organized under the Irish Land League, requested that landlord Boycott reduce their exorbitant land rents.

When Boycott refused, he was harassed and ostracized. The Land League forced Boycott’s personal servants and laborers to abandon his property. Local stores refused to serve him, his mail went undelivered and his livestock escaped through mysteriously opened gates. Finally, when the landlord and his wife were hanged in effigy, Boycott fled back to England.

So dramatic and successful was Boycott’s ostracism and expulsion, that within months his name became associated with this form of protest. The verb and the noun “boycott” are now common in many European and Asian languages.

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