Choice words from a 'linguamaniac'
''Once you know the name for something, it changes it for you forever,'' says Paul Dickson, a tall, flannel-shirted fellow with at least 200 dictionaries. The author of the recently published ''Words: A Connoisseur's Collection of Old and New, Weird and Wonderful, Useful and Outlandish Words,'' he calls himself a ''recreational linguist.'' A better term might be a ''compulsive word gatherer, '' or maybe a ''linguamaniac.''
''I spent an hour in New York last week,'' he said relaxing in his suburban Washington, D.C., home, ''trying to track down the name for that little plastic thing that holds the price tag to your clothes. Went down to the garment district and finally found a shop that makes the things. It's a sign tag,'' he says, with evident satisfaction.
Mr. Dickson, a former Navy officer who's been a free-lance writer since 1978, manages to turn his obsessions into a book a year on subjects ranging from ice cream to ''The Mature Person's Guide to Kites, Yo-Yos, Frisbees and Other Childlike Diversions.''
Words were an early obsession, says the author, who has been reading dictionaries and ''squirreling away words'' since his youth. But he says it's only been in the last five years that he has seriously tapped the ''underground of recreational linguists'' to form his collection. To begin, he read their newsletters and magazines, like the Journal of Verbal Aggression, garnering swear words like ''asterisk'' (''Asterisk!'' shouted the pirate. ''I'll make it two asterisks,'' snarled the other, ''and throw in a dash'').
Dictionaries make a good read, he says, and turn up words that have the ''shock of recognition. Like aglet - it's the tip of your shoelace, the thing you thread through an eyelet in your shoe.''
They also turn up ''perfectly unusable words that sound real'' for use in word games like Dictionary or Call My Bluff. His favorite is ''tyromancy - one of those predictive words,'' he explains. ''It means to predict the future by examining cheese.'' Antique dealers are also a good source of ''doodad'' words (''they're great at coming up with names for items they don't know what to call, '' he says).
Many of his best words have come simply by listening: ''I'll go to a conference and listen to a speech, and get hung up on the way the person's saying what he's trying to say.'' Living near the nation's capital has given him ample opportunity to collect ''twaddle words'' this way, like ''interface'' or the bureaucrat's name for typing pool - ''information processing center.'' Or the phrase ''for your convenience,'' which Thomas H. Middleton of The Saturday Review exposed this way: ''You go into your bank, and there's plaster all over the floor, the ceiling has been ripped out, there are exposed wires to trip over , and you see a sign that tells you, 'For your convenience, we are temporarily destroying the bank.' ''
But other areas of the country have their own special speech, Dickson says: umpahr (a Baltimore umpire), denist (a Cincinnati dentist), jalettum (New Yorkese for ''Did you let him?''), and dauntaun (a place in Pittsburgh where the streets get ''slippy'' when it snows).
''Professions tend to invent their own language - computer people are famous for this,'' the collector says. ''One of them called me at 11 o'clock last night to give me 'screenfull,' a new word that means having a screen full of data.''
People often call him with funny words, he says: ''Not a day goes by that I don't get a letter from someone telling me a new family word'' (a term he coined for phrases used exclusively by individual families).
Family words and acronyms are the most popular sections of his 52-chapter book, he says. ''Acronyms are so much a part of our lives,'' he grins, ''and they're supposed to be useful. But try reading a classified ad in the (Sunday paper) - you can't understand what half of it means.''
His favorite acronym is NASA. ''When someone tells me he works there, I ask him if he means the North American Swiss Alliance or the National Association of Synagogue Administrators,'' he says with a chuckle.
Mr. Dickson says he tries ''not to be a word bully - nothing irritates me more than a person who stops a conversation with words,'' and rarely plays Dictionary anymore (''I'm getting too good at it''), but he's thinking about publishing a sequel to this book. Or maybe he'll write another Dicksonary.