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A Rumbustious Writer's Defining Moment

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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 ... .

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.


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