Letters to Paula, JA97

Paula Poundstone is waiting to answer your questions about life’s little mysteries. E-mail her at paula@motherjones.com.


Anonymous, e-mail: If a word’s misspelled in the dictionary, would anyone know?

A: At about 3 a.m. one night when I was in high school, while working on one of the only papers I ever wrote, I was browsing through the dictionary and came across the word “lucubrate,” which means “to work, study, or write laboriously, especially late at night.”

Right then and there I fell in love with the dictionary. Since I am a lazy person by nature, for years I kept a dictionary in every room of my house so that the urge to look up a word would not be quashed by the thought of having to walk into another room.

It was a pleasure to try to answer your question because I got to talk to a dictionary woman at the Houghton Mifflin Co. in Boston. Marion Severynse told me that words have a long history and that dictionaries generally get their spellings from past dictionaries and other printed material.

She also told me that 18th-century dictionary makers had fixed the spellings of words in an effort to bring about standardization, but that there is still some variation. “Miniscule,” for example, is becoming an acceptable spelling of the word “minuscule,” because despite minuscule’s most fervid complaints, people keep spelling it “m-i-n-i-s-c-u-l-e.” This worries me a bit. My name, Paula, is spelled “p-a-u-l-a,” but if enough people started spelling it “low-life-scum-sucking-pig,” I guess I’d have to accept it.

Ms. Severynse did say that most dictionary editors are good spellers and would catch a misspelled word, but that in the first printing of the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, one entry word was misspelled and many people brought it to their attention. So the answer to your question is yes.

Cliff Nunley, e-mail: Where could I find the inscription on Nixon’s tombstone? I can’t rest until I know.

A: Sorry for the delay, Cliff. I hope you’ve been doing something constructive during your lengthy period of unrest. The obvious answer is “on his tombstone,” but I’m prepared to be more helpful than that. Nixon’s memorial site (although you may remember him anywhere) is at the Richard Nixon Library, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, Calif. It is to the left of the birthplace as you stand looking at the gardens. To save you a trip, I’ll tell you that it says: “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.” (I should note, however, that “peacemaker” could have an acceptable variant spelling if enough people started using it.)

Write Paula c/o Mother Jones, 731 Market Street, Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94103. Fax her at (415) 665-6696; or send e-mail to Paula@motherjones.com