Letters to Paula, JA97

Paula Poundstone is waiting to answer your questions about life’s little mysteries. E-mail her at <A HREF="mailto:paula@motherjones.com">paula@motherjones.com</a>.

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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

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IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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