Jane Solomon's Defining Moment
The lexicographer and logophile introduces kids—and grown-ups—to the challenging words she loves.
Photo courtesy of Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, An imprint of The Quarto Group
Ailurophile. Hurdy-gurdy. Troglodyte. How many of these words do you know? Jane Solomon wrote her recent book, The Dictionary of Difficult Words, with kids ages 8 to 12 in mind, but among the more than 400 delightfully illustrated terms are plenty of head-scratchers for adults.
“I was never the kind of kid that read dictionaries cover to cover; the first time I read a dictionary, I was being paid to do it,” jokes Solomon, an Oakland resident who works as a linguist for Dictionary.com. “But I did love looking things up, and I loved learning really strange words.”
As a child, Solomon listened to her father read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to her and her twin sister—who also became a lexicographer (aka dictionary writer and editor)—and she would revel in the challenging vocabulary J.R.R. Tolkien used. For Difficult Words, Solomon aimed to highlight words that are truly hard or whimsical—digging deep into obscure scientific and musical terms, for example—but define them in language a child can understand.
No matter the age, it’s the users of a language who create its words—everyday people, not lexicographers or dictionaries. “Language is constantly changing,” Solomon says. “And what excites me is I catch it as it’s changing. It’s magical.”
A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words
Solomon picks her favorite emoji.
When she’s not defining words, Solomon sits on the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, helping to select the symbols that appear on your cell phone. Her most-used emoji is the upside-down smiley face. “I find it to be a useful way of expressing sarcasm,” she says.
She also uses the icons in unex-pected ways, such as in the grid art she posts on the @EmojiInfluencer Instagram account. A favorite: The “person bowing” can be placed above other emoji to create something new: above a cake, it denotes blowing out candles; above a microphone, it’s a podcaster.
Some terms reflect a moment in time. Here, Solomon offers three suggestions for word of the year.
“I love this word because you immediately know what it means—and it makes me laugh thinking that there are more petfluencers in the United States than lexicographers,” Solomon says. “Influencer culture is such a productive area of language growth.”
Solomon defines this term as: “Assuming the pose of triumph used by U.S. national women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe: head back, arms outstretched with one slightly higher than the other.”
“A reply guy is a guy who always appears in your comments on social media,” she explains. “You probably don’t know him personally, and his comments are kind of combative or very thirsty—like, he really wants you to notice him. It’s not a good thing to be a reply guy.”
While researching her book, Solomon relished deep dives into the backstories behind the words—even the ones she thought she knew.
Definition: “Someone who has big opinions about things they know nothing about.”
Backstory: Ultracrepidarian comes from the Latin, meaning “beyond the shoe.” In Pliny the Elder’s ancient text Natural History, the painter Apelles tells a shoemaker criticizing his art to not judge beyond the shoe. Says Solomon: “It’s basically a really funny insult from ancient Greece.”
Definition: “Someone who is independent and has their own way of doing things.”
Backstory: Maverick is an eponym—named after 19th century Texas lawyer Samuel A. Maverick. Some people couldn’t settle a debt to him, so they gave him hundreds of cattle. He refused to brand them, and many were stolen. “The word was first recorded a few years before his death,” Solomon notes.
Definition: “If someone who is sick is put in quarantine, they are separated from others for a period of time to stop the spread of disease.”
Backstory: You might recognize the root: Quarantine comes from the Italian, meaning literally “40 days.” When it was first applied to health, it was at a time when travelers were isolated for 40 days upon first entering a port. “Now, of course, it can refer to any number of days,” Solomon says.
For more about Solomon and her book, visit lexicalitems.com.