top of page

Featured Artwork

Oh No! Dictionary




Artist's Statement


I have often wondered why some authors apologise for using difficult and forgotten words. To me, the experience of the languages I speak is like travelling through the landscape I grew up in, the landscape I love and know so well. The trees and plants are mostly familiar to me, but every now and then I spot a rare and curious species. It usually makes me stop dead in my tracks and makes me reach for my camera and identification manuals. When I read a text and I see a word that I have not yet encountered, I get thoroughly excited. I believe that there are those who get really annoyed.


I wrote my first dictionary in 1977 – DICTIONARY OF COLOUR. Since then I have written quite a number of them. The biggest one, with over 18,000 entries, was completed in 1999 – A DICTIONARY OF PERPLEXING ENGLISH. In order to compile this dictionary I spent nearly four years, carefully reading page for page the seventeen volumes of the proper OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY. I made careful notes on all the words I usually found puzzling and obscure and turned them into dictionary entries. I tried to give each word a 'face' so that it might become endearing and desirable. I gave its meaning/s, wrote a little of its etymology, related anecdotes and gave examples of its usage. I have often worked with the extinction of plants and trees in my artworks and in a way I am trying to save old and difficult words from vanishing.


I have not yet published my dictionaries as books. Instead I turn them into artworks, shown at exhibitions. In a way, exhibiting artworks is 'publishing' them or making them public. In my BLIND ALPHABET PROJECT, for example, I have created a dictionary for blind people to walk around in. The 'pages' are really metal bases with knee-high wire-mesh boxes concealing wooden sculptures that cannot be seen by sighted people. Blind people find the boxes or 'pages' conveniently accessible in rows, next to each other and do not have to look for them. The sighted are made to feel somewhat blind by the frustrating gallery signs that say "Don't touch." The Braille plates on the boxes discuss strange words for shapes, structures and textures – a dictionary of morphology. To date I have made close to 400 of these three-dimensional 'pages'. The Letter 'A' forms chapter one. Chapters two and three comprise the letter 'B' and can be seen in different locations. Nine 'chapters' of THE BLIND ALPHABET 'dictionary' have been completed and can be viewed in different countries and cities.


The OH NO! DICTIONARY is a collection of strange words from some of my existing dictionaries, namely :











The OH NO! in the title plays on my fascination with words and names that create an incredulous or surprising reaction. One might be taken aback when hearing a really shocking place name like 'Fucking', a town in Austria or 'Shit', a small town in Māzandarān, Iran. The involuntary reaction would be to say "Oh No!"


To celebrate my OH NO! DICTIONARY, I made eight word 'drawings' that were 'translated' into 'text' by my daughter Karen Boshoff. These are called OH NO! WORDS and feast on the craziness of eight intriguing words that exist in the OH NO! DICTIONARY.

Willem Boshoff 2010



Statement from The Artist's Press

Willem Boshoff is a gentle giant of a man. He is tall, he is broad and his knowledge of words, plants, stones and philosophies is huge. He arrived to work on his prints with a trailer. In the trailer was a large computer. Much of his time here was spent wondering around the garden, camera in hand. Boshoff is the ideal visitor to ones garden. We had been struggling for months to identify a few tricky trees in the garden. Hours of paging through books, leaves and flowers in hand had merely resulted in frustration. And then the Druid arrived...


A Brazilian Pepper Tree was identified (it has since been turned into firewood) and the incredible Ficus sansibarica (Zanzibar Fig) on our dam wall now has a name full of associations. It is remarkably easy to go off on tangents with Willem Boshoff. A casual reference to keys results in an analysis of the name for someone who keeps keys, a claviger, and then leads to someone who is obsessed with keys, and the conversation ends up in heaps of laughter.


Boshoff has a remarkable ability to weave simple things into complex threads (like the beautiful installation outside the main entrance to the Mpumalanga Legislature which consists of jars of soil collected from sites around the country, poignantly reminiscent of healing, memory and belonging). And then he does the reverse, taking a complicated Latin sounding word and making it accessible, by turning it into a print. Here is what he wrote about the print Culmiculous.


"I wanted to make something that has a feeling of straw, chaff or grass. In my anthology 'Kykafrikaans' I had a visual poem called 'Bol Strooi' (ball of straw) – written because of the Afrikaans idiom: "Hy praat strooi," (he speaks inconsequential rubbish).


I found some fine bits of straw and turned them into the Oh No! print. Then I checked all my notes on grass and straw in the Oh No! Dictionary, but there was nothing I could use as a title. The title I chose, culmiculous, is not included the Oh No! Dictionary, but I noted that it rhymes with 'ridiculous' and I put it in as the title of the print.


The entry culmiculous is in fact from my new dictionary What every Druid Should Know. The entry reads: Culmicolous: Living in straw or on the stems of grass, as certain fungi do – from the Latin culm 'stalk' and colere 'to inhabit'.


Words like culmiculous and nidicolous (living in a nest) are pronounced close to ridiculous. A culm is the stem of a plant, especially a jointed grass stalk and a culmiferous plant grows stalks. Culm is also soot and mud." Willem Boshoff, 2010


The "imagery" on these prints is constructed out of words that relate to the dictionary that the title of the print is from. Dromomania was drawn whilst listening to rugby on the radio, whever the ball went Boshoff drew a line along which text was later imposed.


Willem Boshoff has decided that he is a Druid. A while ago he realised that all the things that interested him, the things he collects and the way he lives is druidic. His take on Druid is not the new age Stonehenge version. His is more local, an African outsider who collects, ponders, creates and occasionally comments.


Most of the prints in this series relate to The Oh No! Dictionary that Boshoff has compiled.

bottom of page