Readers of my New Year's Day column may remember that I have resolved to make a special effort to use certain words that, although I always find intriguing, I never actually use in either speaking or writing. The word I promised to give some verbal and written attention to during January is digitabulist, which means "a person who collects thimbles." Halfway through the month, I can tell you it is not easy to fit this word into normal conversation! I did, however, find myself in an Oneonta antiques shop a few days ago looking at an elaborately detailed thimble that caused me to remark, "That would be the perfect gift for a digitabulist." Unfortunately, I was alone at the time, so the remark was made in my head, not actually spoken to anyone.
Nonetheless, digitabulism has me thinking about how interesting the phenomenon of collecting thimbles and -- well, anything -- really is. And I do suppose that anyone could, in fact, become a collector of anything, but certain collections are remarkably common -- at least common enough to have generated words to identify the collector.
Even the most familiar sort of collecting, however, may have a given name that is much less familiar. For example, it's not unusual to know someone who collects dolls, but did you know that these collectors are known as plangonologists? When I was a kid, several of my friends and I would swap matchbook covers for our collections, but I doubt that any of us knew that we were phillumenists. I also didn't know that I was briefly a brandophilist (a collector of cigar bands), but it's just as well -- my supplier was my dad, who smoked only two brands of stogies, so the collection was not exactly museum-worthy. Actor Edward G. Robinson, who was a fervent brandophilist, once said, "My father and uncles and all their friends turned their lungs black trying to satisfy my collector's zeal" -- another good reason to forgo such a collection ... and be grateful that my dad eventually kicked the filthy habit.
Over the years, I've known people who have collected shells (conchologists), butterflies (lepidopterists), recipes (receptarists), books (bibliophilists), coins (numismatists), stamps (philatelists), beer coasters (tegestologists), teddy bears (arctophilists), autographs (philographists) and flags (vexillologists). None of these collections seems particularly unusual, and a few of them may even have a familiar name, but I was surprised to learn that a childhood friend's fascination with sugar packets is an interest shared by many serious collectors who call themselves sucrologists. I can also admit to not knowing about heortologists, who collect religious calendars, or helixophiles, who collect corkscrews, but at one time I was a rather enthusiastic deltiologist (collector of postcards), which seems more fulfilling to me than telegery, the fairly modern activity of collecting phone cards.
With the seemingly limitless number of things that someone could start collecting, it provokes the question of what it is exactly that makes collectors out of so many of us. And what is it that compels us to collect the specific things we've chosen to collect? I've never had the slightest attraction to keyrings -- if I get a new one, I toss the old one -- but something about them struck my daughter when she was a child, and by middle school, the multitude of keyrings attached to her backpack nearly outweighed the pack and all its contents. In the language of collectors, she was an avid copoclephilist, although her passion for keyrings disappeared overnight a few years later. I have never seen a hint of "the collector" in her since, so I'm somewhat doubtful of her ever becoming a lexiconophilist, which means my prodigious collection of dictionaries will be a very disappointing inheritance!
Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.