Looking for Dr. Goodword to share a laugh

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Robert Beard might be a bit of an oocephalus, but he's certainly never been accused of being anencephalous.

Dr. Beard, a retired linguistics professor at Bucknell University, is a man of letters. And words. And funny words.

And he's just published a book of what he has deemed to be the 100 funniest.

The words, from abibliophobia (fear of running out of reading material) to yahoo (a country bumpkin), have been collected over the eight years that Dr. Beard has written a meticulously researched daily e-mail on word meaning and etymology.

He's known as Dr. Goodword on his Web site, www.alphadictionary.com, which gets 400,000 visitors a month and has 20,000 daily subscribers. He started sending out the e-mails after he retired from Bucknell in 2000, and has defined and etymologized 2,500 words in his daily Good Word e-mail.

He takes pride in using humor in his definitions, showing that just because he spent most of his career in the library reading dictionaries, he can still tell a joke.

Over the years, he started to notice that the funny words were the ones that got the most response from readers.

And so he compiled them into "The 100 Funniest Words in English," available for $14.95 at Amazon.com and the Web sites of Alibris and AbeBooks.

In Dr. Beard's opinion, words are funny either because they sound funny, because they mean something funny, or some amalgamation of the two.

Oocephalus, which means an egghead, and anencephalous, which means lacking a brain, would fall into the first category. Callipygian (having an attractive rear end) and gastromancy (telling fortunes from the rumblings of the stomach) are examples in the second category.

But it's the words that satisfy both categories that are Dr. Beard's favorites. He chuckles when defining both formication, which means the sense of ants crawling on your skin, and fard, a word for face-paint or makeup.

"Words are funny when they're one letter away from something naughty," he said, "and everybody knows it."

Dr. Beard is already getting e-mails about words missing from the list. Scalawag, for example, is one that he now wishes he included.

He's also refining his list of the 100 most beautiful words in English, which he hopes to publish as a book later this year.

Even with all the knowledge he accumulated in his 35 years as a Bucknell professor in Lewisburg, Union County, he spends an average of three hours researching and writing each daily e-mail update.

Though he knows that many of his e-mail subscribers are mainly looking to build their vocabularies, he hopes that they also learn from how the words came to be.

"I'm interested in getting into the words to see what they tell us about ourselves and our history," he said. "People like the etymology because it does tell us something about where we've been, where we've come from and who we are today."

Anya Sostek can be reached at asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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