If you’re looking for baby names, Alastair Reid’s 1958 picture book Ounce, Dice, Trice is probably not for you. Unless you’re prepared to name your child something along the lines of Blodge, Sump, or Chumley, which Reid suggests would make great whale names. The exercise of coming up with names that just feel right for such things as whales, cats, and nitwits forms the heart of this classic, which was reissued by the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books in 2009. Reid, along with illustrator Ben Shahn, whose line drawings look a bit like the kind of thing a prehistoric version of Edward Gorey would have scrawled onto a cave wall, created a work like none other in this, their one collaboration.
A poet who also reported for the New Yorker and is better known as a translator of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges, Reid presents Ounce, Dice, Trice as a collection of words “to amuse and amaze” children. In a brief introduction, he advises that the words in the book be read aloud for their sounds and shapes, and encourages kids to begin their own collections of curious and astonishing words. Reid’s collection is organized in lists, comprised of 5-10 words each, some of which can be found in dictionaries, others of his own creation. Some examples: Heavy Words (blunderbuss, mugwump, befuddled), Words for Times of Day to Be Used Where There Are No Clocks (daypeep, dewfall, owlcry), Names for Houses and Places (Smidgin’s Nob, Windygates, The Bobbins). The book concludes with a series of what Reid calls word garlands—series of words which begin and end with the same word, but take readers through chains of linked definitions. In this way some of my personal favorites are revealed: dimity (“the time of day when daylight dims”), gnurr (“the substance which collects after periods of time in the bottom of pockets or in the cuffs of trousers”), and gongoozler (“an idle person who is always stopping in the street and staring at a curious object”). Another favorite section lists unusual collective nouns, the best of which appear to have been invented by Reid: “a scribbitch of papers,” “a gundulum of garbage cans,” “a tribulation of children.”
Ounce, Dice, Trice is a great pick for any budding wordsmith in your life—I know I would have loved it during the recurring phases of fascination with strange words and secret languages I experienced in the latter years of grade school—but it’s also a fun way to pass a half hour of any adult life, if only to bring back the wonder of words we learn to take for granted as we grow used to reading and hearing so many, page after page, year after year, until we are forced finally to invoke firkydoodle for some much needed mumbudget. – Dan Coleman, Collection Development