August 06, 2007

Define this, you nitwits

Snopes, the foremost online repository of urban legends, reports that the following email is making the rounds:

I don't have a 1999 Random House unabridged handy, but I hope this one is true. Received via email:

Disgruntled Former Lexicographer

The following definition was discovered in the 1999 edition of the Random House dictionary. The crafting of this definition was the final assignment of Mr. Del Delhuey, who had been dismissed after 32 years with the company.

Mutton (mut'n), n. [Middle English, from Old French mouton, moton, from Medieval Latin multo, multon-, of Celtic origin.] 1.The flesh of fully grown sheep. 2. A glove with four fingers. 3. Two discharged muons. 4. Seven English tons. 5. One who mutinies. 6. To wear a dog. 7. A fastening device on a mshirt or mblouse. 8. Fuzzy underwear for ladies.

9. A bacteria-resistant amoeba with an attractive do. 10. To throw a boomerang weakly. 11. Any kind of lump. (slang) 12. A hundred mittens. 13. An earthling who has been taken over by an alien. 14. The smallest whole particle in the universe, so small you can hardly see it. 15. A big, nasty cut on the hand. 16. The rantings of a flibbertigibbet. 17. My wife never supported me. 18. It was as though I worked my whole life and it wasn't enough for her. 19. My children think I'm a nerd.

20. In architecture, a bad idea. 21. Define this, you nitwits. 22. To blubber one's finger over the lips while saying, 'bluh.' 23. I would like to take a trip to the seaside, where no one knows me. 24. I would like to be walking on the beach when a beautiful woman passes by. 25. She would stop me and ask me what I did for a living. 26. I would tell her I am a lexicographer. 27. She would say, "Oh, you wild boy." Exactly that, not one word different.

28. Then she would ask me to define our relationship, which at that point would be one minute old. I would demur. But she would say, "Oh please define this second for me right now." 29. I would look at her and say, "Mutton." 30. She would swoon. Because I would say it in a slight Spanish accent, at which I am very good. 31. I would take her hand and she would notice me feeling her wedding ring. I would ask her whom she is married to. She would say, "A big cheese at Random House."

32. I would take her to my motel room, and teach her the meaning of love. 33. I would use the American Heritage, out of spite, and read all the definitions. 34. Then I would read out of the Random House some of my favorites among those that I worked on: "the" (just try it); "blue" (give it a shot, and don't use the word 'nanometer'). 35. I would make love to her according to the O.E.D., sixth definition.

36. We would call room service and order tagliolini without looking it up. 37. I would return her to the beach, and we would say good-bye. 38. Gibberish in e-mail. 39. A reading lamp with a lousy fifteen-watt bulb, like they have in Europe. Also: a. muttonchops: slicing sheep meat with the face. b. muttsam: sheep floating in the sea. c. muttonheads: the Random House people.

As the Snopesters reveal, the above text is actually a humorous piece by Steve Martin, published in the "Shouts & Murmurs" section of the Oct. 11, 1999 New Yorker. It's part of a large genre of urban folklore common to the digital era, in which authored bits of fiction become decontextualized from their sources and get circulated electronically as if they were factual. Sometimes the fiction is intentionally misleading, as in the Belgian video about voices released from the grooves of ancient pottery (an April Fool's prank, as I described in a post last year). In many other cases, a piece of satire loses its satirical context, leading credulous readers to believe that they're enjoying a "strange but true" account of Microsoft error messages in haiku, a calamitous Bangkok piano recital, or Elizabeth Hurley's pubic hair extensions.

Steve Martin's piece works well in this genre, since it poses as the type of apocryphal story we've all heard about: a disgruntled employee leaves behind a concealed bit of sabotage, be it a rattle in a Cadillac or hidden phallic artwork. But Martin moves the sabotage narrative into finely wrought literary terrain, with the sad Mr. Delhuey joining the ranks of such thwarted dreamers as Walter Mitty and J. Alfred Prufrock. (Apparently, no amount of literary flourishes can keep some people from disabling their irony detectors, at least when they're reading their email.)

One line in particular struck the fancy of the writer Diane Ackerman, as she recounts in her book An Alchemy Of Mind:

When I got to definition 6 — "To wear a dog" — I began laughing spasmodically, and again at odd moments throught the day, whenever the image of wearing a live squirming mutt infiltrated my thoughts. At dinner that evening, over curry, I tried sharing its humor with friends. Only one of three got it, and she started laughing crazily, too, while the others seemed mystified by our apparent stomach cramps and bad taste. On the basis of that single event, I conclude that humor is subjective.

I'm more fond of the later definitions, with the vividly imagined world of those harmless drudges who toil anonymously in the lexicographical trenches. Now that I've joined that world, I can report that most lexicographers aren't all that Prufrockian. Not that they don't dream of finding someone who swoons at the definition of mutton.

(By the way, the sixth definition of the noun love in the Oxford English Dictionary is "the animal instinct between the sexes, and its gratification." Mr. Martin clearly did his homework.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 6, 2007 06:04 PM