The Dictionary of Two‑Letter Words in English
Glenda Foster, no price given, no ISBN
Available from the author, Waipatu Settlement Road, RD2, Hastings
Did you know that the American spelling “ax” existed in English long before “axe” did? That the lower‑case “oj” means orange juice but the more recent upper‑case version refers to wife‑killing, as in “to do an OJ”? That “up” was once also spelled “wp” or “vp”? That 15 rivers in the world are called “Aa”?
To most literate people two‑letter words are the glue (at, by, in, of, an) that holds sentences together, along with the odd exclamatory usage (ah, no, um, er, ta). But to Hastings “logologist” Jeff Grant, they represent a rich vein of knowledge that could fit into several books.
His latest lexical (or logological) project is The Dictionary of Two‑Letter Words in English. It contains 676 entries covering every possible combination, from aa (n., a rough scoriaceous lava) to zz (interj., a buzzing or snoring sound).
Desktop‑published in a limited edition by Glenda Foster of Lower Hutt, it will be sold to academics, crossword junkies, Scrabble players and general word lovers around the world through Word Ways, the international “recreational linguistic” magazine, to which Grant has been contributing articles over the past 20 years.
The compilation appears in a concise form, with a lengthy preface discussing the incidence and significance of two‑letter spellings in different cultures. According to Grant, it could have far exceeded 676 entries, as many words have a multitude of definitions (“aa” alone has more than 100). But in the interests of conciseness (and to prevent an enjoyable exercise turning into a lifetime’s labour) he has selected in each case the most unusual or interesting meaning.
For example, “lo” is a fat person in Ayrshire, Scotland; it refers to a physical allure; “no” is the classical Japanese dance‑drama form; “am” is an old Egyptian palace; “be” is a hereditary occupational group in Japan. For “om” he has cited the less common verb usage.
With the many combinations of double consonants, the definition of what comprises a word has been stretched to include many capitalised abbreviations in common usage, such as TV, OK, MC and LP. “Anything that functions as a word can be listed,” says Grant. For many obscure combinations, such as the competitive sports term “PB” (personal best), he has provided citations of use.
The lexicon makes for great dabbling, but for those keen to capture something of Grant’s fascination for two‑letter words, the introduction is essential reading. Comprising one third of the text, it includes sections on a wide range of two‑letter curiosities ‑ proper nouns from around the world as well as words used in English. Here are some findings:
Two‑letter family names most often belong to Vietnamese or Chinese, and the most common is Ng, followed by Ho and Li. Grant has unearthed, through the scouring of international telephone directories, a number of double‑ and even triple‑bangers, such as Qi Ai Xu, or Li Bi Yu, and in New Zealand, the table‑tennis champion Li Chung Li.
‑ Bo is a city in Sierra Leone, and the reverse, Ob, is a river in Russia, the fourth longest in the world. A town in Cuba is called La Ya Ya. However, two‑letter place names are rare in New Zealand (one such being a town called Te Ti, meaning ti‑tree).
‑ The field of medicine produces many two‑letter abbreviations, such as TB, VD, BC (birth control), VK (video‑keratography) and BV (blood volume). They mainly stand for diseases, drugs, enzymes, chemical compounds and processes.
‑ Many recorded examples of nonce‑words, or words coined for a purpose, can be found in the writing of James Joyce. They include “kk” (a crackling noise), and “mn” (a variation of “mm”, a sound expressing pleasure or distractedness ‑ also found listed in the Oxford Dictionary).
‑ The Pacific region languages have contributed many words to English, such as “oo” and “ou” (Hawaiian birds) and “pu” (a Samoan shellfish).
The introduction has a section on words Grant doesn’t allow. These include brand names; book, magazine or film titles; concocted names (such as JR in television series Dallas); radio codes; business names (BR for British Rail); abbreviated place names (LA); any use of capitals that takes full stops; and foreign words not used as such in English (such as “tw”, a Welsh urging).
He does include dialect words (such as “c’n” for can and “km” for come), archaic words and old spellings ‑ anything from Anglo‑Saxon onwards.
Compiling the complete collection of two‑letter words and their definitions has been a five‑year labour of love for Grant, with the concise dictionary just a way of sharing it around. However, it is not his first exercise in lexicography.
He began some years ago with a dictionary of words and names beginning with X. It contained 3400 entries and reflects Grant’s lifelong fascination for the letter, as manifest by the XWORDS number plate on his old Honda Accord. As well as the twenty‑fourth letter in English, X represents the Roman numeral for 10 (he has dedicated his life to producing the world’s first genuine 10‑by‑10‑letter word square), an indeterminate number (significant in scrabble scores and Grant’s other cherished word games) and crosswords. “Or it could be a sort of verbal pun, words in Xcess ‑ the story of my life, really.”
Another volume was a dictionary of palindromes (words or phrases spelt the same forwards and backwards, such as “Madam, I am Adam”), called The Palindromicon.
As an inveterate “recreational linguist”, Grant has held numerous world records for palindromic compilations (his efforts have appeared in the Guinness Book of Records). He is New Zealand’s foremost scrabble player, ranked No 1 almost continuously since rankings began in the early 1980s and 10 times national champion. At the recent third scrabble world championships in London he placed third, the best result ever by a New Zealander. Grant also holds world records for “theoretical” Scrabble scores (solo games, using any sources): the highest one‑move score, of 1970 points, and the highest total game score, of 4454 points.
He owns probably the most comprehensive private collection of English dictionaries in New Zealand, including some ancient and obscure titles. He corresponds regularly with lexicographers around the world, and has advanced the cause of the “New Zealand language” by getting 65 New Zealand words accepted into the latest edition of the Chambers English Dictionary, supported by citations of use from newspapers and literature.
These include “dwang”, “hirage’ or “hireage” (“the first time this word has been listed in any dictionary”), “gutser” and “gutsful”, “greasies”, “hoon” (but not “hoonish”), “feijoa”, “graunch”, “squiz”, “triallist”, “jandal” and “ponc(e)y”. Also, such Maori words as “marae”, “katipo”; “weta” and many names of trees and birds.
He was happy “tangi” was accepted, surprised “hangi” was rejected. “It shows, though, that you can influence dictionaries if you’re determined,” he says.
Howard Warner is a Wellington freelance writer.