I learned a new word yesterday. More properly speaking, I learned a new term. That term is: “thumb cut.” You know those circles that are cut into the pages of a dictionary or a set of LDS scriptures? The ones that help you find a specific tabbed page in the book? That’s a thumb cut.
I bet you didn’t know that. And I’m not saying that because I have a low opinion of the intelligence of my readership. I only make the assumption because I consider myself to be fairly well-informed in the world of book and publishing-related terms, and I only just learned the word. (I would be genuinely interested to know if any of you did know the term beforehand. You would definitely gain points in my book.) And yet, you definitely knew what they were – even if you didn’t know the proper term. Or that there even was a proper term.
I confess that I love knowing the words for things. I love knowing the proper name of something. I fall asleep and dream of rumble strips, semi-raglan sleeves, and sporrans. I wake up, happy to great the day with lemmas, tweeters, and skeins. I love, in particular, words having to do with books and typography. Eyes and counters, feet and spurs, serifs and finials, œthels and thorns, umlauts and diaereses, small caps and drop caps and swash caps and true italics and both kinds of colophon. Along those lines, my Designer’s Lexicon and my Flip Dictionary are two of my favorite reference books.
I’m not sure why I love these terms so much. It’s not to show off or sound intelligent – I rarely use the terms, even when given the chance; I’m afraid I’ll be misunderstood or come off as a snob. (Looking back to the “guillotine” post, this seems to be something of a theme in my life.)
And yet, it’s not technical terms per se that intrigue me. I’m well aware that the world of, say, internal combustion engines offers hundreds of new words for me. I don’t care. I think it needs to be something I encounter in my daily life, something I had often seen, but never named, or disparate instances I should have noticed, but never though to pay attention to until I found a name to gather them all together.
In Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy, to know the name of something is to have ultimate power over it. I’m not so sure that I want ultimate power so much as greater understanding. I often learn the purpose of something at the same time I learn the word for it. (Although not in the case of thumb cuts.) Headers are sideways-turned bricks in a brick wall. (“Normal,” long bricks are stretchers.) The purpose of headers is to bind together two or more layers (or walls) of brick, because one layer of brick isn’t strong enough to support a structure. Which means that if you see a brick wall without headers, it’s only a façade, because it can’t be thick enough to be supporting the building. So now I walk around campus thinking, “that’s a façade, that’s a façade, that might be structural brick . . . that’s a façade . . .”
I can only guess what I’ll learn today.