Dictionaries move with the times in a way few other books do. Photo: Getty
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The joy of dictionaries

To see how the world has changed, look no further than the dictionary.

You could write a history of the world just by looking at the words that got into the dictionary, and disappeared from it. You would of course have your great scientific advances: oxygen, aeroplane, penicillin, and boob job. But politics would play its part, for it was the world of politics that gave us Cold War, glasnost, ayatollah and suicide bomber. New habits make themselves known through phrases like sofa-surfing and texting. And art and music can be seen with the arrival of impressionism, ragtime, heavy metal, hip-hop, and emo. New social types arrive. Before the 1980s there was no such thing as a Sloane Ranger or a yuppie (from “Young Urban Professional”). And the 1990s gave us Britpop and ethnic cleansing.

Sometimes these words merely involve a new label applied to something that already exists. The teenager was never heard of before 1942. This doesn’t mean that the ages thirteen to nineteen didn’t exist before then. It was merely that they weren’t considered that important. You were a child and then you were a young man or woman. You played with toys, then you put those toys away and got yourself a job. The teenage phenomenon could only start when the teenagers were separated out by language. They were given a name and with it they were given an identity and very soon they were able to listen to teenage music, dress in teenage fashions, and do teenage things like dancing and sulking.

And with the rise of computers we have had the rise of the geek. Geek was originally a Scots dialect word (“geck”) that meant a fool or a simpleton. But slowly it became an insult, a term for an unsociable and boring student. And from there it has been reclaimed as a badge of honour for anybody who really understands computers and their strange ways. Now we have geek, geeky, and geekspeak, and this edition introduces geekery, geekism, and geek chic: “a fashion style believed to be characteristic of geeks, including the wearing of heavy-rimmed glasses and T-shirts with humorous slogans”. The fool has become fashionable. This dictionary contains 51,000 entries that have never appeared before. That’s the largest number that has ever been added to a new edition of Collins. As you can, no doubt, imagine, there are much too many to give a full and detailed account of everything that’s gone in, and why. We can leave that task to some future scholar who will pore over it all from his future study trying to work out what on earth went on in 2014. It’s too much for any one person even to remember them all. Some new words have been included for reasons that are prosaically obvious. The olinguito is a kind of racoon that lives in the cloud forests of the Andes. It crawls around among the foggy branches, and only does so at night, which probably explains why it was not discovered until 2013. And a year later it has crawled into the dictionary. The same thing goes for the lesula, a species of monkey found only in a small part of the Congo, which managed to go undiscovered for centuries despite having a strangely human face slightly resembling Edith Sitwell, and bright blue buttocks.

Just one of the new words to be added

Other new additions are technological. Indeed, this is the first time that the word technophilia – “enthusiasm for technology and the latest technological devices” – has appeared. It’s a close neighbour of textonym – a word that can be generated using the same numbers on a keypad – and Twittersphere.

Not all of the new words in this dictionary, though, are new. Some are old words which have been excluded for too long. Beautiful old words like slumbersome, which is a much better way of saying “sleepy”. It’s those soft, soothing S’s that send you off to slumberland, another new-old word that means “the domain of sleep”. Some of these are charming and elegant like the raconteuse, or “female raconteur”. Or perhaps eyesome, which means “pleasing to the eye”.

And other words are almost comical in their inelegance. Sitting glumly in the corner is quonk, which is a broadcasting term for any noise accidentally picked up on a microphone. There’s something so awkward and dumpy about the sound of quonk that it fits perfectly into its role. There’s the noop, which is the very tip of the elbow; and there’s the haffet, which is a part of the face in front of and above the ear.

A page or so further on and you get the horrors of the hagrider, which is a person or thing that causes fear and apprehension. I could blather on through all 50,000-plus additions, but for the moment, let us stick to the simple, newly included phrase nuff said.

This is an excerpt from “The Joy of Dictionaries” by Mark Forsyth, featured exclusively in Collins English Dictionary 12th edition, published 23 October 2014. Mark Forsyth is the bestselling author of The Etymologicon, The Horologicon, and The Elements of Eloquence.

Collins are offering a special launch discount: £15 off the cover price, plus free P&P. Please go to bit.ly/collinsdictionary and key in code CO2014 at the checkout. Offer valid until 30 November 2014

Mark Forsyth is the bestselling author of The Etymologicon, The Horologicon, and The Elements of Eloquence.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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