My 50-Cent Masters Degree in English Language

Earning your Masters Degree in English Language takes intense concentration, five years of dedicated study, social-avoidant application, and plain old hard work. It also takes considerable funding—around $117,421.65. Mine cost 50 cents.

Now, I’m not knocking formal education from a reputable and prestigious institute of higher learning. No. Not at all. Nothing compares to personal exposure from profs and peers. But the end result, knowing linguistic principles and how to find/use English writing resources to polish your prose, is what an English language degree is all about.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from.

I’m a cheap SOB. I rarely pay full pop for anything, including books. The other week, I was snooping in a thrift shop and checking their used book section. There it was. This behemoth titled The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

It was on an upper shelf and darn near took out my rotator cuff lifting it down. Whoa! This thing is like new! It was hard covered, bound in faux leather with faux gold-gilded page ends, and—I swear to God—had nearly two thousand of them chocked-full of every detail on the English language you can imagine.

I set it on a display counter and browsed. The copyright page said 1988, but that didn’t worry me none about being outa date. We’re talkin’ English here. Surely the words and structures haven’t changed much in thirty-three years except for some new-fangled lingo like “smartphone”, “pumpkin spice”, and “Covid19”. Let’s look at the good stuff—timeless stuff—like gerunds, compound predicates, interjections, inverted orders, irregular comparison of adjectives, prepositional phrases, and that elusive eunuch called a dangling modifier.

There’s something about a book of quality. You know. The paper book that’s perfectly typeset—bound so you can lay its front cover-spine-back cover on a surface and each page, as you turn, lies perfectly flat without having to weight one side and the other with a cordless drill and a ceramic garden gnome.

This is exquisite. The table of contents aroused me. Preface. Staff. History of the English Language. Languages of the World. Guide and Use of the Dictionary. Editorial Abbreviations. Pronunciation Key. English Handbook. An 1144 page dictionary?  If I knew everything in here, it’d be like having a masters degree in the English language.

With both hands that should’ve been in white gloves, I carried this treasure to the till. “I don’t see any price marked,” I said to the till-lady who looked like a hard-core, 50’s librarian crossed with an inked biker-chick, reluctantly volunteering at the hospital auxiliary store or maybe completing a plea-bargained, community work service program.

Anxiously, I awaited her answer.

Over cat-eye glasses, she read a corrugated poster board suspended from the ceiling by thick butcher twine. It stated their general price assignments. “Let’s see… looks like all our books are fifty cents apiece.” She cat-eyed at me. “No dickering, though.”

My vitals reacted. “You… you… you only want fifty cents for this?”

“Says fifty cents for all books.” She looked at something below the cat eyes. “Looks like you found yourself a bargain.”

Start The Car!  I did. I got the equivalent of a Masters Degree in English Language for a half-buck. Call it two quarters or a fifty-cent piece. Far, far less than a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte or the ridiculous rate for the parking ticket pinned to my windshield.

I took her home, this big book of English language. I call her “her” because I think English gets the Germanic short schtick from romance languages like French which is my wife, Rita’s, first language and I try to be romantic with Rita because being romantic with Rita usually pays off even though I don’t speak more than five words of proper French nor does Rita want me to.

I poured two fingers of Scotch and sat down to enjoy her. Her title somewhat perplexed me—The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Now, everybody’s heard of Noah Webster, and everyone’s got his dictionary. Encyclopedia? Duh. Remember back in grade school when you were either on Team Britannica or Team World Book?

Hmmm… I see what they’re doing here. They’re blending an all-encompassing dictionary in with an encyclopedia strictly dedicated to English language structure. Right on! But, what’s a Lexicon?

I was tempted to Google it. However, the answer was right in the preface. “Lexicon can be a book containing an alphabetical arrangement of the words in a language and their definitions; the vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject; or the total stock of morphemes in a language.”

Morphemes? I had to Google that one, and I suppose that anyone with a Masters Degree in English Language would know that “a morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. A morpheme is not necessarily the same as a word. The main difference between a morpheme and a word is that a morpheme sometimes does not stand alone, but a word, by definition, always stands alone.”

I didn’t know that. I found out there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the English language as I paged through her, The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. There was a short history lesson that clearly documented our language’s evolution from Old English through Middle English and on to Early Modern English. I especially got a kick out of the spelling and sound of the West Saxon version of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6 of the Bible’s King James Version. It’s impossible to reproduce on my modern keyboard so I’ve attached a photo/screen shot.

Try pronouncing this gibberish after a few triple whiskeys. Reminds me of a guy named Rod Tubbs who was in our police poker club. Tubbs spoke like this halfway and worse through every evening.

Enough sidetrack. English study is a serious business and, if I wanted to get my money’s worth, I needed to keep paging. I’ll save you from regurgitating the 1144 page dictionary, but I do say the Practical English Handbook part was fascinating. I didn’t think it could happen, but it blows Elements Of Style out of the water. Here’s the prelude to the most concise, 45-page guide I’ve ever read:

The purpose of this Handbook is to provide a quick, easy-to-use guide to grammar, correct usage, and punctuation. It is intended for use in the business office, in the home, and in school. Secretaries, writers, teachers, and students will find it especially useful. The Handbook is divided into 25 sections or chapters each covering an important aspect or problem in English. The book is designed so that it may be used as a step-by-step complete self-study English review. But, in addition, it is a complete reference handbook for day-to-day use whenever a question arises concerning English useage or punctuation.”

I’m not going to list each chapter, as I don’t want to write an encyclopedic post full of lexiconal morphemes. But I do want to highlight the Parts Of Speech chapter, the Sentence Patterns chapter, and the Punctuation Review chapter. There were more goods packed in short spaces than I could ever imagine. Just the information on commas alone was worth my price of tuition.

Speaking of the price of tuition, you’re probably wondering how I came up with the Masters Degree in English Language figure of $117,421.65. Well, I went to the University of British Columbia’s website and looked up the details of their Masters of Arts — English Language program. Here’s a snippet from the UBC MAEL page:

The UBC English Graduate Program, one of the most vibrant and wide-ranging in Canada, has been awarding the M.A. degree since 1919. Students may earn the degree in each of two areas: English Literature and English Language. Indeed, the UBC English Department is one of the few departments in North America to offer a language program in addition to its literary programs.

The English Language program includes specializations in history and structure of language, discourse and genre analysis, and history and theory of rhetoric. Faculty members in the Language program teach and supervise research in descriptive linguistics, historical linguistics, cognitive linguistics, functional grammar, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, stylistics, genre studies, and history and theory of rhetoric. Students in the English Literature program can take advantage of Language graduate courses; recent offerings include courses on reported speech and its rhetorical versatility across genres; the uses of classical rhetoric for contemporary critical practice; and cognitive approaches to the language of literature. By the same token, Language students can take advantage of the wide variety of Literature courses our department offers.”

Below this pitch is their rates. Basic tuition is $6,358.13 per year and their living-within costs are starting at $17,126.20 per year. That adds to a total yearly amount of $23,484.13. Seeing as it takes five years to earn an MA, that means getting a Masters Degree of English Language will set you back $117,421.65.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think I really can get the equivalent of an expensive, five-year university program by reading my fifty-cent book. I have a high regard for education and highly educated people, and I truly respect their degrees. But what I did buy with my half dollar was access to a wealth of knowledge in The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

I don’t know if you can stumble upon this language beauty in a used book store. If you can, by all means grab it. I do know, however, that you can get copies on Amazon. They list a used hardcover for a very reasonable $15.68.

Okay, Kill Zoners. Have any of you got a copy of The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language? And what English language resources do you recommend? The University of Kill Zone floor’s mic is now open.


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner in the Province of British Columbia. Now, he’s an indie writer with an eight-part series of based-on-true-crime stories as well as many stand alones.

Garry also hosts a popular blog on his website at You can follow GarryRodgers1 on Twitter or follow him around in his boat floating on the Pacific saltwater at Vancouver Island.

44 thoughts on “My 50-Cent Masters Degree in English Language

  1. Garry, what a find. Thanks for sharing your story and for telling it so wonderfully. I don’t have a copy but I’m glad that you found one at such a terrific price. Enjoy perusing it this weekend.

    BTW, I think that the clerk from whom you purchased your copy works at a convenience store near me during the afternoons when she is not tending your local thrift shop. I’m also all but certain that her employment is a condition of her probation.

  2. Addendum: Garry, when I saw the headline of this morning’s post, I thought that perhaps Curtis Jackson III had been retained as a visiting professor at Portland State University.

  3. Great story, Garry. Very interesting information about The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Amazing that you can still buy it for $15.68.

    My English language resources include a stack of three dictionaries, including an old Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, Bartlett’s Roget’s Thesaurus, The Chicago Manual of Style, Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors (quick and very helpful), The Elements of Style, and Barron’s Essentials of English. Many of them are collecting dust.

    I have Google at my fingertips to double check spelling, and I keep Grammarly on retainer to review each chapter.

    The New Lexicon Webster’s is tempting for $15.68, but I already have more books than I have shelf space.

    Thanks for a great post, and have a great day!

    • Thanks, Steve. My paper dictionary(s) and thesaurus(s) are so tattered but now somewhat dust covered since I have and bookmarked on my upper board. Grammarly? It’s like hot sauce and I use that sh*t on everything but like hot sauce it doesn’t always agree with me so I use a human proofreader who is an old gal who spend a career editing medical papers and catches my mistakes at the microbal level. I think she wrote the Chicago Manual of Style.

  4. Great post, Garry. When I was a kid, we had a bookshelf in our bathroom, but the contents were curated. We had a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, an illustrated encyclopedia and an illustrated Bible. I loved the dictionary. I would read it like a book, marking the pages from one day to the next. I can’t say that I made it all the way to the end over the years, but it had to be close.

    Fast forward to my twenties. I either bought or was given a massive four-volume hardcover boxed dictionary. I’m not sure there were more words in these faux-leather books than there were between the red covers of the Webster’s dictionary of my youth, but there was certainly a lot more information. Articles about grammar, origins of words and linguistic trivia. Truth be told, I still found the words themselves to be more interesting, but it was quite a find.

    That I stored on a shelf in front of a window. That was open. When the thunderstorm came through when I was out of the house.

    It’s astonishing how much faux leather volumes swell when they become soaked.

    But that dogeared red Webster Collegiate Dictionary survives to this day.

    • Hey, thanks, John. I was so worried about water damage to my new-old Lexicon that I drank my Scotch through a straw rather than risking a spill on the pages. And I’m happy to hear I’m not the only dictionary geek who reads about words on the toilet. I mean words while on the toilet, not literally words on the toilet like the poems and invites on a public bathroom wall.

  5. As a kid, I worked my way through the World Book Encyclopedia (red ones) and the annual supplements. I never studied English beyond the required courses in high school and college. Most of what I learned about grammar came from my Latin and German classes.
    My bookshelf of reference works hasn’t been used as much now that there’s the Google Machine readily available, but I have the standard dictionary and Thesaurus, plus the descriptionary and flip dictionary and synonym finder. But using them requires getting out of my chair and walking 3 steps to the bookshelf and 3 steps back.

    • Ah, Team Wold Book, Terry. I was on the opposite side growing up with 26 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica in our living room. I suspect there are no more living encyclopedia sales people anymore. Google is like video killing the radio star.

  6. Our language is changing and not for the better. In the age of Twitter and texting u don’t need no rules. Leaky grammar goofs even on “high-end” news sites drip lethal acid down through all content carriers. We are no longer training good old-fashioned editors with sharp blue pencils. I mean, I saw this not long ago: He has been more prolific in his career than either Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. Sure, that’s a little one, but they grow.

    Here’s another one: The best hope for conference chaos this Fall after the Big Ten canceled football season lied with Ohio State.

    That said, my favorite dictionary is the one William Zinsser recommended: Webster’s New Collegiate (1959) which came out just before Webster’s “muddied the waters” with a revision. I have two copies, one that was my grandfather’s and one I snatched at a used bookstore.

    For a style guide, I turn most frequently to Write Right! by Jan Venolia.

  7. Terrific find, Garry. Used bookstores are a treasure trove.

    Try the University of TKZ’s Library. Free and packed with helpful info.

    I always say I earned my MFA at TKZ and it didn’t cost $117K.

    • Ah! The TKZ university library! I forgot about it, Debbie. Long, long ago in a province far, far away, we in the rural world borrowed books from the university extension library. They even came in a box with return postage already paid. How I miss the pre-Google and pre-Prime days. 🙁

  8. Wow, Garry, you did score an incredible bargain. Even at $15 and change that dictionary is a very good deal.

    I own three dictionaries, including the mammoth Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged Second edition, 1979, which my wife and I purchased as young newlyweds in 1982. This book’s dictionary runs 2129 pages, followed by supplements totaling 160 pages, a color illustrations at a few key points, and a full color map of the world in the back. The supplements don’t cover language usage like your massive tome does. More’s the pity. This really needs a display stand, which I don’t currently have room for, so it lives on the shelf, and pulling it out is a workout.

    I also own a 1988 Random House Webster’s College Dictionary which is my go-to-reference for looking up definitions. I inherited this from my late friend and writer’s group member Peggy, when she passed away in 2000. I use it regularly. I also have a paperback edition of the American Heritage Dictionary from the early 2000s which lives beside my writing desk.

    Still, I’m tempted by the your massive dictionary, despite having my own colossal tome. That usage supplement sounds very useful.

    I own one thesaurus, Roget’s Superthesaurus, compiled by Marc McCutcheon and published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2004. Entries are in simple alphabetical order, and include many minor words. I use it not to find a substitute word, but rather, the right word 🙂

    Congratulations on your find! I’m still eying that Amazon listing for the book 🙂

    • Your dictionary has 2129 pages, Dale, while my new score only has 1144? Yours has got to be double spaced. It’s nice to converse with a library guy like you who truly appreciates what’s between the covers. Most of the cops I worked with couldn’t read never mind write. Take the leap and hit the Buy Now button!

      • You talked me into it 🙂 Even better, I found a copy online at our Powell’s Books local warehouse (doesn’t hurt to live in the home city of that great book store) for just $7.95.

  9. That does it, Garry. I’m seriously jealous.

    Heading down to the used bookstore now, two quarters jingling in my pocket.

    Thanks for sharing. If I can’t find one downtown, I’ll spring for the fifteen dollar version on the Zon. Glad I’m on Prime…the shipping, I’m sure, would be more than the book.


    • Darn well should be jealous, Deb. I’m lucky enough to have two wives. One is real and the other is virtual. The real one is a walking, breathing, and living dictionary crossed with a thesaurus, and I don’t need no Google when Rita’s around. The other is internet bound and I’m sure she’ll shortly show up with a comment. She, by the way, is one of the best writers I’ve ever encountered.

  10. Terrific find, Garry. I love my Roget’s Thesaurus in book form and I regularly use the “AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law,” as well as the “Introduction to Forensic Anthropology” and assorted forensic textbooks with gruesome photos.
    When I was a reporter, I was ordained by mail as a minister. It cost a dollar and I put it on my expense account. I couldn’t get the newspaper to pop for $5 so I could be a bishop.

  11. Half a buck.
    I got my Black’s Law Dictionary-4th ed-wore out three lawyers before me for a dollar at a yard sale. The other ones I use are my Roget’s Thesaurus marked “To Barbara 1956” which I use often and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare marked “With much love to Barbara K. Keller from Aunt Mamie and Uncle Fred, December 25, 1940” All three have that wonderful smell of old paper, and in particular Shakespeare added a piquant note to my briefs and motions as a lawyer. You can always find something right on point from the Bard. See, you can show that you’re a well read literary gent as well as a competent lawyer.
    I think I will add this to my collection.

    • Half a buck for a Lexicon should be illegal, Robert. I kept the receipt to prove it. “You can always find something right on point from the Bard.” Timeless stuff from Wild Bill, for sure, but I’ve never heard any lawyer quote Shakespeare in a closing argument. Now that would sound cool!

      • Well, they probably don’t know it but half the lawyers in the world know about Hamlet and “a tale told by an idiot”.

  12. Congratulations, Garry, on your great discovery! You’ll have us all scurrying to used bookstores today to see if we can find a comparable deal.

    I have to disagree with one thing you said in your excellent post: “Now, I’m not naïve enough to think I really can get the equivalent of an expensive, five-year university program by reading my fifty-cent book.” Given the resources that are available to us today, I suspect a serious student can excel beyond a university degree in English.

    Do me a favor, would you? See if the word “mountweazel” is in your dictionary.

    • Okay, let me go heave open the Great Discovery. BRB…

      Nope. No “mountweazel” there. It should have been right around Mountain Goat and Mountie. I’ll try Google…

      Yup! Wikipedia’s got it. “Fictitious or fake entries are deliberately incorrect entries in reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps, and directories. There are more specific terms for particular kinds of fictitious entry, such as Mountweazel, trap street, paper town, phantom settlement, and nihilartikel.[1]
      Fictitious entries are included either as a humorous hoax or as a copyright trap to reveal subsequent plagiarism or copyright infringement.

      My Lexicon is so outa date. 🙁

      • I’m surprised it’s not there. I learned about mountweazels years ago as a means dictionary makers used to protect their copyrights. Some of the definitions are hilarious.

        The subject is worth a blog post, I think.

  13. As someone who actually has an MA in literature, I’m just shaking my head at your description of the cost and the course work. Both are ridiculously wrong. The cost may cover a BA, MA, and Ph.d at the most expensive university in the US, but not just a Masters. I finished mine in two years as a gateway to a doctoral program. That’s its only economic value if you intend to teach college level.

    Linguistics is just a tiny part of the course work, and linguistics involves considerably more than the etymology of words and learning Old and Middle English which is rarely part of the linguistic coursework, anymore. Plus, you won’t get into any program if you can’t write well and have mad skills at research. Instead, you’ll be spending most of your time reading and taking apart literature from the US and England throughout their histories. Most of my two years were spend stretched out on my sofa reading novels with forays into the Stygian depths of the library for research for writing papers.

    Anyway, congrats on the incredible and cheap find. If you really want your mind blown, look through the many volumes of the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY at your local library, or get an online subscription. It is the strongest linguistic drug hit known to word nerds.

    • I second the recommendation for the Oxford English Dictionary. I have the 2-volume copy that must be read with a magnifying glass.

      Also, I recommend the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). Three volumes are available and it contains fascination information.

  14. My daughter’s BS in Biology (currently) from a private liberal arts school will be about double your $117K when she is done. I love her. I also love scholarships. Tuition is only a Toyota a year, not a Mercedes.

    • And my daughter’s Masters in Psychology will be in the $150K range when it’s all said and done. You get what you pay for in education like pretty much everything else in life. Thanks for dropping by, Alan.

  15. My father loved books. We had a lot of books. When he died the collection was disposed of. Some went to the book seller. Some to friends. Several boxes to a used book sale.

    About 4,000-7,000 went to a garage sale. My brother, the brighter of the two of us, came up with the pricing plan. 50 cents a pound. Most paperbacks were 25-50 cents. A basic hard cover, $2.00. Scale by the check out, weight and pay. A plat book went for $8.00. A good friend did a lot of volunteer work with Reading is Fundamental. They sent four volunteers to help with the sale. We split the proceeds. Over $1,000 each. The remaining books went to the used book sale. I recognized some of them several years later.

  16. Score! That used bookstore is a goldmine, Garry. What did you pay for my hardcover of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, six bucks or something crazy? Can’t say I have the Lexicon, but I was Team Brittanica all the way. 😉

    • I was on Team Britannica, too, Sue. If I remember right, I got your SOTL book for about six bucks, right. KZers – Get this – I found a brand new, first-edition, hardcover copy of Thomas Harris’s Silence Of The Lambs at a used book store. It was in pristine condition, and I knew who would appreciate it most – my BFF Sue in NH. 🙂

  17. Sounds like it was meant to be. Enjoy!

    I have a Webster’s New International from the 1920s that is 5 inches thick and over 3000 pages. Sad to say, though, the small print is getting harder and harder to read these days…

    • 1920s and 3000 pages. Luv it, and I’m with you on the fine print, Rose. Yesterday, Rita went, “What happened to my magnifying glass?” I go, “Ah, I borrowed it. It’s in my studio.” She went, “Put it back and get your own.”

  18. Check eBay, where it’s in the $5-7 dollar range right now with the BUY IT NOW option instead of bidding.

  19. My father bought books by the carton. Our library had books numbering well into four figures. Two Britannica sets. Even today, I have no idea how many dictionaries we have. I had one my grandfather gave my mother back in the ’30s. And of course a post-war copy of the New Twentieth Century Dictionary. The gem of the collection is our two-volume OED, probably the most useful, since it tells me when a word appeared in the English language, a necessity for historical fiction. We also have a “Rojjuts Thezza-russ,” as a sergeant called it. I’ve left a broad trail behind me, these many years, of lost, stolen, forgotten, abandoned, discarded, and sold books.

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