The Grammarphobia Blog

Nabokov’s favorite dictionary

Q: Sometime in the ’60s, Edmund Wilson reviewed a translation of Pushkin by Vladimir Nabokov. In the review, he accused Nabokov of using nonexistent words that were not in the Oxford English Dictionary. Nabokov replied that he never used the OED, but preferred another dictionary. Do you know what it was?

A: You’re referring to Edmund Wilson’s article in The New York Review of Books on July 15, 1965, in which he reviewed Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Wilson criticized Nabokov’s use of odd and obscure English words in translating the Russian of Pushkin:

“He gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab. All these can be found in the OED, but they are all entirely dictionary words, usually labeled ‘dialect,’ ‘archaic,’ or ‘obsolete.’ “

Wilson also complained about another word, “stuss,” which was not then in the OED. “To inflict on the reader such words is not really to translate at all,” he said, “for it is not to write idiomatic and recognizable English.”

Nabokov replied in a letter to the New York Review on Aug. 26, 1965, saying he wanted to “undeceive credulous readers who might assume that Mr. Wilson is an expert in Russian linguistics.”

He complained of “ghastly blunders” in the review, and said, “I greatly regret that Mr. Wilson did not consult me about his perplexities (as he used to do in the past) instead of lurching into print in such a state of glossological disarray.”

As for “stuss,” Nabokov said, it “is the English name of a card game which I discuss at length in my notes on Pushkin’s addiction to gambling.”

He said Wilson “should have consulted my notes (and Webster’s dictionary) more carefully.” Wilson, in a reply to Nabokov’s reply, sniffed, “I never use Webster.”

(They were apparently referring to Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, which defines “stuss” as a gambling game like faro. The OED now defines it as an American word for a form of faro.)

Wow! Some insults! And these guys were friends! The literary scene now seems tame by comparison.

I can’t find any mention during this particular dispute of Nabokov’s preference in dictionaries. But the literary critic Brian Boyd has said Nabokov’s favorite was Webster’s New International (2d ed.), often referred to as Web II. Boyd mentions this in a note to a book of his about Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire.

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