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Richard Snary

This was a seventeenth-century pun, even more convoluted than most of its kind, that had a surprisingly long run. I encountered it as one of the entries in this month’s revisions to the Oxford English Dictionary online, which its editors seem to have added in a skittish spirit one might not expect from so sober a publication.

A Richard Snary is a dictionary. This is the canonical joke:

A country lad, having been reproved for calling persons by their Christian names, being sent by his master to borrow a dictionary, thought to show his breeding by asking for a Richard Snary.

A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose, 1796.

This inadequate witticism is linguistically interesting because it suggests that around that time dictionary was said with only three syllables, with the middle part elided away, as dic-snary (/ˈdɪksnærɪ/). It appears like that in the first known example:

Talke not to me of Dick snary, nor Richard-snary; I care not how little I come neare them.

Apollo Shroving, Composed for the Schollars of the Free-schoole of Hadleigh in Suffolke, by William Hawkins, 1627.

Although in modern English it’s also often reduced to three syllables, it’s a later one that’s lost instead: dic-shun-ry (/ˈdɪkʃənrɪ/). The Richard Snary form turns up surprisingly recently:

I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary.

Red Harvest, By Dashiell Hammett, 1929. The author was misled about its context by its appearance in Grose’s Dictionary, which mostly featured underworld slang.

Katherine Martin, a senior editor at the OED, commented: “Much of the evidence found by OED researchers seems self-consciously humorous; one suspects that those who used the term would have delighted to be asked what it meant, so as to have the excuse to deliver what is essentially a joke with an etymological punchline.”

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Page created 26 Jun 2010