Dictionary dick

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Bert Vaux posted this on his Facebook wall, "From Ed Pulford's recent trip to Silk Road towns in Southern Xinjiang":

This is a tough nut to crack.  The Uyghur label at the top is no help, because, as David Brophy observes "the Uyghur is just lughät, the standard word for 'dictionary' (Arabic originally)."

The best hypothesis I can put forward for how this weird sign came about is that the translator, faced with two Chinese words for "dictionary" (zìdiǎn 字典 ["character dictionary"] and cídiǎn 词典 ["word dictionary"] ), didn't want to render them by a single English word, so they used "dictionary" for the former and "dick" for the latter.  Of course, that still doesn't explain where they got "dick" from.  I submit that it may have happened in the following way.

The abbreviation "dict." is all over the internet as a stand-in for "dictionary"; it is especially widely used with reference to bilingual Chinese and English dictionaries.  The person charged with translating 字典.词典, being familiar with online sites called "dict." may have written that down on a piece of paper and given it to the sign painter, who misread the final "t" as "k".  That's not so far-fetched as it may seem, since Chinese cursive styles sometimes write "t" in a way that might be confused with "k".  It's common to see "s" being mistaken for "p" and "l" for "t", or "G" being mistaken for "J".

We can expect more of this sort of confusion; after all, cursive and characters appear to be dying arts.

[A tip of the hat to Ben Zimmer]


  1. Yuval said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Or, "dick" is what some automatic speller suggested for the unknown "dict.".

  2. DW said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:39 am



    The first choice given for "cidian" here is indeed "dick".

  3. EP said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 12:15 pm


    The OED's 4th entry for "dick" actually lists it as an abbreviation of dictionary, but with only two quotes:

    "1860 T. C. Haliburton Season Ticket xii. (Farmer), Ah, now you are talking ‘ Dic.’, exclaimed Peabody, and I can't follow you.
    1873 Slang Dict. (at cited word), A man who uses fine words without much judgment is said to have ‘swallowed the dick’."

    I assume baidu's translation probably came from an antiquated dictionary itself.

  4. Sili said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    I thought this was gonna about people bragging about their libraries or vocabularies.

    Or more likely something to do with the "that's not a word" fallacy.

  5. Nick Lamb said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

    I can imagine a 1940s children's book calling a character "Dictionary Dick" and it getting past some unusually naive or unworldly editor and out into the world.

    "Dictionary Dick won't like you calling them fish", said Martha, "because dolphins are mammals, like pigs or dogs". But just then Tom arrived with some urgent news.

  6. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    On the contrary, a dictionary dick is a private detective who . . . specializes in the return of purloined dictionaries? Jack Reacher, perhaps, after a career refocusing.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

    FWIW, the word at the top of the sign seems to be a misspelled attempt at the Arabic word for language or dialect.

  8. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

    W. C. Fields' classic The Bank Dick was released in 1940. Dictionary Dick does not sound so naive for that era.

  9. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    What was Tom's urgent news?

  10. richard said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

    I believe Tom wanted to let them all know that Lassie fell down a well.

  11. Carl said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    It was a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets—secrets like, how do you spell sarsaparilla, what's another word for angry, and what's the etymology of interregnum? On the fifth floor of the Acme building one man was looking for the answers: Dictionary Dick.

  12. Dr. Decay said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 4:34 am

    @Spell me Jeff

    Me too. W.C. Fields came immediately to my mind when I saw the picture.

  13. Faldone said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 6:09 am

    GeorgeW: FWIW, the word at the top of the sign seems to be a misspelled attempt at the Arabic word for language or dialect.

    That would be because it's not Arabic. It's Uighur. Whether it's misspelled in Uighur I wouldn't know.

  14. michael farris said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 7:17 am

    Apropos of nothing in particular. In Thai IIRC dik is one word for dictionary (presumably borrowed and abbreviated from English). One Thai dictionary I have kicking around somewhere even used it (in Thai script) on the cover.

  15. GeorgeW said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 7:32 am

    Faldone: What is the meaning of it in Uighur?

  16. GeorgeW said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 7:37 am

    Faldone: Whoops, sorry, I missed the comment in the post. However, lughät is not the standard Arabic word for 'dictionary.' It is the word for 'language' or 'dialect.'

    Does it mean dictionary in Uighur?

  17. Rodger C said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    @GeorgeW: I know It means "dictionary" in related languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet. Uighur uses a kind of plene writing, including for Arabic derivatives. This is, I think, a Communist Chinese innovation to help pry the Uighurs away from Islam while simultaneously (by keeping the Arabic alphabet) separating them from other Central Asian Turks.

  18. Acilius said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    Not so very many years ago, I was a graduate student in classics. One of my professors, who was born in the UK sometime around 1960 and took her doctorate from the University of California sometime around 1990, routinely referred to dictionaries as "dicks." She referred to Liddell/ Scott/ Jones as "the big dick," and was quite sincerely baffled when we all responded to the phrase with snickers. If I had not seen the look on her face, I could not have believed that any native speaker of English who had spent so many years on US university campuses could be unaware of the slang meaning of "big dick," so I don't suppose we can generalize from the case of that one extraordinary individual.

  19. Lane said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    Rodger, thanks – I too was confused by the weird rendering of "lughaat", and had to look up what "plene writing" was. Glad to have that in my vocab now. But weird: there already is a long vowel – Arabic alif – in the Arabic word for the long a sound. They've replaced it with a ha, which, when it bears two dots, is a short a-sound in Arabic, and which is an h-sound without the dots. If that's standard Uighur, and I guess it is, it's pretty funky – I'm noticing also how the letters aren't joined.

  20. MC said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    Lane, the reason for the "weird" rendering of "lughaat" is because of the vowel harmony rule of Turkic langauages. Subsequent vowel varies according to the vowel that preceeds it. Arabic does not have this rule. "ä" is not a long vowel in Uyghur – people who have some background in Persian may understand this "ä" better. Altough Ottoman Turkish has a different vowel notation system, it works in a similar fashion.

    Uyghur uses the Arabic script but its grammar is Turkic, so to say "lughaat" would sound "weird" to a Uyghur person's ears. Plus, the "ha with two dots" that you referred to is "ta'marbutah" – it doesn't function as a "short a-sound" like that of a short vowel. In Arabic, it usually appears at the end of a word as a gender indicator but rarely being joined within a word (in this case, it would become a "ya", not "ha").

    And Roger, I'm not sure what "plene" writing is. While the CCP may have something to do with the "resurrection" of the Uyghur Arabic script in the recent decades, I highly doubt that the current system is an innovation of the CCP. Whether the Uyghurs choose to write their language in Orkhon, Syrian or Chagatai scripts, this vowel harmony system still applies. Also, the Uyghurs had been writing in Arabic script long before the CCP took over.

  21. Rodger C said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

    Plene writing means an abjad adapted so that all the vowels get spelled out somehow.

  22. Rodger C said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    To expand on that: the best known example of plene writing is Yiddish. Hebrew words in Yiddish are written as in Hebrew, but the Soviets invented a Yiddish spelling where the Hebrew words were written as pronounced. That's why I thought the plene writing of Arabic words in Uighur was probably a CCP innovation, though afaik the Uighur spelling for native words may well be older than that.

  23. Ljubica said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 12:15 am

    Lane, I doubt that the source of the word "لوغەت" is really the Arabic plural form luġāt, but rather its singular luġa(t-), and I think it's more likely that it was borrowed indirectly through Persian rather than directly from Arabic. The tāʾ marbūṭa typically becomes at in Persian, which is not the case in most other languages. So it's a useful shibboleth in some cases. For example, the name of the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet is ultimately derived from Arabic ḥurrīya(t-) 'freedom, liberty'. But were it loaned directly from Arabic one would rather expect a form like *hürriye. It most probably entered Turkish through Persian.
    Further, in Central Asia Persian is traditionally far more important than Arabic, and even though there is a great number of Arabic loanwords in Turkic languages, Urdu, etc., Persian serves most often as an intermediate language.

    I'm not a Turkologist and I hope someone competent will step in, but if this Wikipedia article is accurate, then is used in Uyghur to represent the phoneme /æ/. The examples at the end of the article are striking, it gives for example "ھەممە ئادەم" and the same in a Latin based orthography as Hemme adem. adem comes of course from Arabic ʾādam. This shows that Arabic ā is generally not represented by but rather by as in Arabic. It is also interesting that gemination (?) is marked in Uyghur by doubling of the grapheme, which is also unlike Arabic. As far I can see from the Wikipedia entry, Uyghur uses for each vowel phoneme a distinctive grapheme. If this is true, than Uyghur, like Yiddish, is written with an alphabet and not a plene written abjad.

  24. Sam said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    I know that in Thai they cut off long words by phonetically internalizing the sounds. Hence, my students say "stu" for studio or "dic" for dictionary. Then a common "Thai" word can be transliterated with into a common English spelling without regards to vocabulary but only phonology. And there are rules taught by non native speakers on how to do this properly. This leads to transliterated Thai words like Thong meaning gold. And the common name Porn. There are so many examples, I could write a book but no one would care.

  25. Andrew said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

    My immediate reading was that the intention was "Dictionary deck", as a label for the dictionary section, or shelf, which then underwent a transcription error.

  26. Crane W. said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 4:29 am

    What @Ljubica said is true, that "Uyghur uses for each vowel phoneme a distinctive grapheme". According to my brief googling, the Perso-Arabic Uyghur alphabet is not an abjad. (I can't fine definition of "plene" anywhere on the Internet, could someone please tell me more about it?)

    And, if my recollection is right, ھەممە (hemme) ئادەم (adem) both came into Uyghur via Persian. At least both words has direct equivalent in Persian. (I'm guessing that "Adam" has a same origin as ئادەم although I don't have any proof.)

    As to Uyghur writing system, Uyghurs began writing their language long before CCP took over, as @MC said. In the early 20th century, many Turkic states switched to Cyrillic or Latin alphabet. I am not sure what how was Uyghur written at that time. But after Chinese took over Xinjiang around 1950, Chinese government invented a Latin-based alphabet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghur_New_script ). That might have been an effort to prevent Pan-Turkic or Islamist sentiments. When the short-lived writing system ceased to be used, Uyghur switched back to the Perso-Arabic script in the 80s. This resurrection of Arabic script, to my impression, was more like a Uyghur choice.

    The Uyghur word لۇغەت (lughet) is spelt as لوغەت (loghet) in the photo. The former spelling is more widely used. Uyghur orthography is less uniform than other languages, you can find different spellings for a same word in different dictionaries. Efforts have been made unify the orthography, in 2006 a government-sponsored Uyghur-Chinese dictionary project was completed. Uyghur intellectuals are borrowing more new words from English, rather than from Chinese or Russian. English loan words are better accepted in Standard Uyghur that is present on the press and on TV.

  27. Leinad Moolb said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    Some people refer to Urban Dictionary online as Urban Dick for shorthand….

  28. Michael Rank said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

    My first reaction that it was meant to be "dictionary desk," desk meaning (or trying to mean) department in this case. I'm still puzzled by "plene"…

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