An ‘Accidental Dictionary’ Explores How Errors Created The English Language. “Pink” used to be yellow. A “bimbo” used to be a brutish man. How did we get here?—Claire Fallon, Huffpost; an interview about The Accidental Dictionary by Paul Anthony Jones
But while the dictionary offers neat columns of words, followed by clear and definitive meanings, it is a haphazard document at its heart. Language itself is a constantly shifting, changing thing, so any guidebook to it also reflects those shifts and changes ― and over time, the book itself must be edited and reedited to reflect an evolving linguistic reality.
“Under scrutiny,” writes Jones in the introduction, “the dictionary reveals an unpredictable network of etymological crossed paths, U-turns, and forks in the road.” The Accidental Dictionary takes the form of a dictionary ― a 100-word dictionary ― and adds that scrutiny, revealing the many lives each word has lived.
“Clumsy” once meant “numb with cold.” “Hallucinate” once meant “deceive,” and “prestigious” once meant “deceitful.” “Queen” once meant “wife.” (Viewed from a relatively enlightened, feminist era, that one is rather disappointing.) Somehow, these words were shunted sidewise, rejiggered or tweaked; though they’re still familiar to us today, their meanings have entirely changed.