The late Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once said he “always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."
I’d like that, too, only I’d want to make sure the library contained a big dictionary section. I can spend hours browsing through unabridged dictionaries, smiling happily and muttering contentedly to myself as I discover something new — new at least to me.
I don’t ordinarily use the words I find most fascinating, but maybe sometime I will.
For instance, I often take a short walk in the early morning usually about one-eighth of a mile — a furlong. I’ve known the meaning of furlong for a long time, but I didn’t know that it came from “furrows long.” When fields were unenclosed by fences or hedgerows, they were divided into units equal to one-eighth of a statute mile. Another meaning of the word is “a strip of newly plowed land between main furrows.”
Other units of measure found in the “F” section of my 12-pound Webster’s International Dictionary include firkin, another word I haven’t found very useful so far. The most recent meaning of the word is “A small wooden vessel or cask of indeterminate size.” But older meanings include a) any of various units of capacity, usually equal to one-quarter barrel, b) a unit equal to 9 imperial gallons, c) an old unit for ale equal to 8 ale gallons and d) a unit of butter equal to 56 pounds. I wonder how many ale gallons are in one-quarter barrel, and I wonder if a pub keeper ever argued with a patron about the amount of ale in his firkin. The changes in meaning probably explain why we never use the word today.
A third word we still see in print but probably don’t use is fortnight. Most people know the word and know that it means 14 nights. A word derived from fortnight is fortnighter, a large traveling bag with hangers in the lid and room for everything you might need for a fortnight’s journey. Imagine my surprise when I flipped through the dictionary and found the word sennight. It’s half as long as a fortnight and comes from “seven nights.” As far as I know, you can’t buy a sennighter for shorter trips.
Anyway, I’m going to use all three of these words whenever I can: “Care to join me in a furlong or two this fine morning?” Or maybe I’ll announce, “If you insist on using a whole firkin of butter on your pancakes, you’ll have to go without butter at all for a sennight or maybe even a fortnight.”
I wasn’t consciously looking up “F” words, but that’s the fun of dictionary browsing. You never know what you’ll find.
This article originally appeared in Roadrunner Extra!, the resident newsletter of Beatitudes Campus.