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A Rumbustious Writer's Defining Moment

By Christopher Andreae / August 20, 1992



RETICENCE and modesty best suit wordsmiths. I know that - falling as I have unwittingly these many decades under the dubious heading of "writer." We hacks have little to boast about by and large; silence would be agreeable gold for most of us (and our readers) were it not for the mundane need for bankable income. But, it is always an ultimate consolation to be conscious that no one is actually forced to read our verbalisms. It's a free world ... .

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However, there are occasions when the call to exuberate, extravagate, and even indulge in overmuchness - indeed, to boast - is legitimate. Forgive me, but I feel this is one. "Some," an obscure 16th-century dramatist observed in the persona of one of his less likable characters, "have greatness thrust upon them." C'est moi.

Were it not for the eagle eyes of a longtime colleague I would never, perhaps, have learned of my unexpected lurch into memorability: of my distinct, if tenuous, claim on posterity. He phoned from the United States (I live in Scotland) to let me know. It made my day.

The burden of his news: I am in a dictionary!

Some dictionaries support their definitions with quotations. To show a word in actual use, adds, I suppose, to the understanding of it. It's a policy of which the great Dr. Samuel Johnson, back in the mid-18th century, was an initial practitioner. His compilation of English words in two volumes is arguably the mother of all dictionaries. Nor was he modest about his achievement. "I knew very well what I was undertaking, - and very well how to do it, - and have done it very well," was his assessment.

But words are fickle objects, coming and going with fashion, appearing sometimes only once, to fizzle out immediately like shy glow worms. Johnson mentions several he could find only a single use of; it is one of the engaging characteristics of his work that he thought some such words worthy of inclusion. Presumably, he just liked them.

A number of other words were so unfamiliar that he admitted ignorance of their meaning, but still put them in his book. Then there were those words which were once newly born but had become rather old. In 1755 for instance, Johnson listed "knuff" (meaning "a lout") as "an old word." If it was old then, it seems to have become well and truly obsolete since.

What a pity. Johnson's quote is a verse sporting the phrase "country knuffs," and you instantly know the type he means: Every small rural community has its congregation of them, loitering bored at some corner, or leaning incogitatively over some bridge parapet. The world might well be duller without them. At school we used to call them "oicks" or "yobs," and I'm pleased to see the latest Random House Webster's College Dictionary (1991) mentions one (as "Brit. slang"), if not the other. This inestimable d ictionary is extremely hard to fault, I find; but it doesn't include "knuff" ... and it doesn't include "rumbustious." According to it, it would no longer be in the least feasible to remark, as you drive through, say, a small English village, "I'faith, there be a rumbustious, nay, a coxcomical and noious cluster of ninnyhammers, noodles, and knuffs as ever I did see." (The rest is OK, but knuffs are snuffed.)