Thursday, February 20, 2014
Yesterday, I reached for the dictionary. A real one. It's the Random House College Dictionary, 1975, which I bought that very year--when our son was three years old. I've kept it on or near my various desks since then--in Kent, O,.; Lake Forest, Ill.; Hudson, O.; Aurora, O.; Hudson, O. I remember having some snippy arguments with my old WRA colleague and friend Jim McClelland ("Mac") about which was better--the Random House or the American Heritage. Mac and Joyce and I often met at Saywell's Drug Store in Hudson (with soda fountain) for coffee--and we engaged in so many word-debates (logomachy: a dispute about or concerning words) that the Saywell's folks kept behind the counter an old unabridged dictionary that I had stored down there to use as the final arbiter in our logomachies.
My Random House copy looks a lot like the picture at the top of the page--though the cover has come loose, and I need to get some book tape to fix it. I like it there, right beside my desk, although I do find myself clicking on dictionary.com or the OED's website more often now. I don't think it's any quicker, but ...
I should have written down yesterday the word I was looking up, but I was sure I'd remember--a certainty, of course, that assures I will not remember it the next day (or even next hour). Sometimes, I get up and look at the unabridged Webster's on the stand behind me--or I consult the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. In my study I also have bi-language dictionaries--Latin, French, Italian, Spanish. I don't use them too often--but I'm glad they're handy when I need them. I have some specialty dictionaries, too. American slang, English slang, brand names, architecture, geography--that sort of thing. Oh, and upstairs is that complete OED that's microprinted and compressed into two volumes and boxed with its own magnifying glass. And an American Heritage, which Joyce uses a lot.
I've loved dictionaries since elementary school when, in third or fourth grade, the school required that we buy that little blue A Dictionary for Boys and Girls by Webster's. I still have mine, copyright 1950. I especially liked the full-color pages--National Flags, Fruits of America, Precious and Semiprecious Stones, etc. Insects of America, I think, was my favorite page. The word bastard is not there, but hell is ("The abode of the dead or of the wicked after death"). Excrement is there ("Waste material discharged from the body") as is sex--but only in its definitions dealing with gender. Damn, damnable, and damnation are all there--probably as a warning to little ones about looking up too many naughty words.
Okay, some "cultured" words: Hamlet ("The title and hero of a tragedy by Shakespeare")--on the facing page is hari-kiri ("In Japan, suicide by ripping out one's bowels"--yikes!); Shakespeare is present, as is Dickens, Charles--but not Jane Austen or either Shelley.
In the "New Words" section: atomic bomb, baby-sitter, bebop, bobby-soxer, DDT, disk jockey, dust bowl, freezer, hamburger, helicopter, iron lung, juke box, motel, newscaster, nuclear, penicillin, radar, soap opera, sun lamp, televise, T shirt, V-J Day, World War II. Yes, that's how old I am!
In the Hiram Schools there was an unabridged Webster's (2nd ed.) on a stand up at the front of the study hall. If you looked up dirty words (there were a few), you had to make sure you flipped the pages elsewhere when you were finished--just in case. In those days I wasn't too curious about (clean) words. I remember only one teacher, Mr. Brunelle (whom we had for English II and III), who gave us vocabulary lists to learn. I already knew some big words because my older brother, Richard, had/has an enormous vocabulary and liked to use them on me. I would look them up before I decided how angry I should be.
In college, though, I started getting more curious, especially when my favorite professor, Dr. Ravitz, would use words I didn't know--lycanthropy, apotheosis, and proem are a few I remember. I would go back to my room and look them up--then use them when the (rare) occasion arose.
When I started grad school (summer of 1968) I became a Word Freak. When I came across a word I didn't know, which was often, I eschewed (like that word?) my default response in junior high and high school (figure out from context--or skip over it) and began keeping lists in little notebooks. Later, I began teaching vocab in my classes (sometimes learning words along with the kids), and now--still--when I come across a word I don't know (which happens a lot, even now), I look it up, try to use it. Remember it.
Thus ... all the dictionaries around the house.
I still think it's oddly wonderful that I can sit in Starbucks and via iPhone or iPad consult the OED online--all twenty volumes of it. A little easier than carrying the set in my backpack.
Still, I wish to hell I could remember that word from yesterday that made me reach for the Random House College Dictionary. It wouldn't have been for a spelling (spell-checkers are much quicker)--so it was a word whose definition I wanted to learn/verify. Maybe it was dotage?