A noumenal piece, fit for gricers drinking pisco...

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The Independent Online

"Here's a word I don't know, and on the very first page of my novel, too," said someone during our summer holidays.

I always love it when someone says that. I just know I'm going to be able to show off by knowing the word. Quietly smug, that's my style.

"What's the word?" I asked, ever so diffidently.

"It was a noumenal evening," Jane (that was her name) read out. "What's 'noumenal'?"

I hadn't the faintest idea. I said nothing. I pretended I hadn't heard. I slunk off. But when, about a week ago, I was sent a pile of new dictionaries for review, I remembered that moment. How do you review a dictionary? By looking up "noumenal", of course.

The new Penguin English Dictionary seemed a bit hazy on this. "Noumenal" is the adjective from "noumenon" which, in Kantian philosophy, means "a thing in itself, as distinct from a thing as apprended by the senses". Right. So it's the object, and not the perception of the object. But hold on. There's a second meaning. "An object or experience perceived by the senses rather than by thought or intuition." So not only is it something NOT perceived by the senses, it is also something which IS perceived by the senses. In other words, two opposite meanings.

Hmmm. Let's try Chambers's new English dictionary.

"Something whose existence is postulated but ultimately unknowable (eg God, the soul); a thing whose existence can be reasoned but never perceived."

That makes a sort of sense. How about the new Oxford, "The World's Most Trusted Dictionary"?

"A thing as it is in itself, as distinct from a thing as it is knowable by the senses through phenomenal attributes."

That also makes a sort of sense, though a rather different sort of sense from Chambers. But it makes me glad that I didn't have those dictionaries on holiday...

"Well, Jane, I would say that a 'noumenal evening' is EITHER one whose existence can never really be provable OR it's an evening in its own right irrespective of how we experience it OR EVEN one perceived sensually rather than experientially..."

I rather suspect that the author didn't know what it meant either. Anyway, I do have two words stored up with which I always test new dictionaries. If they've got them in, they get full marks. If not, they don't. One is "pisco", the Peruvian eau-de-vie, and the other is "gricer", the acceptable word for a railway anorak.

Let's try Oxford first. "A white brandy made in Peru from muscat grapes". Very good! And "A fanatical railway enthusiast". Excellent!

Now Chambers. Yes, they've got "gricer". But not "pisco", I'm afraid.

And the Penguin doesn't list either of them.

So that's the end of my test, with Oxford fractionally ahead.

Unfortunately, it's not the end of the article, so let's think of some more words. Now, I was once given as a present an Internet subscription to a website called "A-Word-A-Day", which does just that. It gives you a new word every day. Some I know, some I don't. Most are more fun than useful, but occasionally they are priceless, as for instance in the case of the word "exonym", which I learnt recently and which I wish I had know a long time ago.

That's because an "exonym" is a name give to a place only by foreigners, not by the natives. So for instance Florence is an exonym, because the Italians call the place Firenze. Madrid and Barcelona are not exonyms, but Milan and Rome are, and so are Londres and Edimbourg. Excellent!

So, which of these three dictionaries has "exonym"?

Not Penguin. Nor Chambers. Nor Oxford. Well, you might say, "exonym" is a bit specialist.

Maybe. But just above the space where "exonym" should be, they ALL list the word "exon", which means one of the four commanding officers of the Yeomen of the Guard at the Tower of London.

How specialist is that?

Here is another word I picked up from A-Word-A-Day. "Pangram". A pangram is a sentence which uses all the letters of the alphabet. The most famous is "The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog". In its thirty-three letters it uses every one in the alphabet.

Here is a shorter one, at thirty-two letters: "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs". Nice, eh?

But there are some even shorter than that. I'll bring you them tomorrow, as invented by an ingenious panagrammatist.

(A word, incidentally, which you can find in Oxford, but not in Chambers or Penguin).