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A connoisseur's guide to words

Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, by Josefa Heifetz Byrne. New York: Washington Square Press. 1984. 237 pp. $3.50, paper. Word lovers, and philologists, addicted to obscure and little-known entries in the language must have a copy of this book. It is now showing up in paperback in bookstores, thankfully. But these are not college entrance exam words, nor are they get-through-the-crossword words. These are mainline, hard-core word expert words.

The first entry is ``aa'' (pronounced ah'-ah), and you need to know this if you're ordering up some crumbling lava in Hawaii. Then there's ablutomania (the mania for washing oneself), and so on to zythepsary (a brewery) and zzxjoanw (a Maori drum, never mind how it's pronounced).

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Mrs. Byrne started writing down words she wasn't familiar with while in college, and the book grew from that. She has researched nearly every major dictionary and language dissertation from the Oxford English Dictionary to H.L. Mencken, and although many of the words are utterly useless, others can quite honestly show up in, if not conversation, at least letters to the editor.

For example:

omphalomancy - predicting the number of children a mother will bear by counting the knots in the first-born's umbilical cord.

jejunator - one who fasts.

enatation - escape by swimming.

anagapesis - lack of interest in former loved ones.

schoenabatist - tightrope walker.

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scaurous - having large ankles.

Yes, well, not exactly for pillow talk, but very interesting all the same.

And this is perhaps the only collection of such oddities of its kind. Words are addictive, a pleasant addiction, and if you're hooked, Mrs. Byrne is pushing. Of course, you can always try psychrolusia - to cure your pyrolagnia - and you can look it up.

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