Next to my desk is a near-perfect piece of technology. It weighs a bit less than four pounds and fits great on a shelf. You can use it for flattening drying flowers or elevating small children at the table. It doesn’t shine in your eyes or run out of battery power. And, within seconds, you can use it to locate a definition for any one of thousands upon thousands of words. It is…a dictionary.
I’m a great enthusiast for dictionaries. I have dictionaries for medicine, geography, etymology, and Finnish. The last turns out to be useless if you don’t speak the language – consonants change in Finnish depending how a word is being used in a sentence, so unless you know the rules, you can’t look anything up. I have dictionaries for languages I speak, too, like German (ranging from pocket- to giant-size), Norwegian, French, and Japanese (at least five). Eventually I noticed I had the beginnings of a collection and started acquiring more whether I needed them or not, so now my shelves also hold dictionaries for Australian English, rhyming English, and Hawaiian. I believe I have more than 30.
But I don’t need to look up words in Spanish, Polish, or Latin very often. The dictionary I reach for the most often–in fact, of all the books I own, it’s probably the one I’ve touched the most–is my Webster’s New World Dictionary: Third College Edition.
Now, I realize that normal people look words up on the computer. I sit at the computer all day too. I could open up another browser window and google the word I don’t know, just like anyone else.
But a paper dictionary is so much more satisfying. For one thing, I look at the darn computer all day long. Taking even a dictionary-sized break feels like a good deed for my eyes and my posture, and probably my soul as well.
Dictionaries also have charming little illustrations, in case you are wondering what an impala looks like, or what the difference is between a box pleat, an inverted pleat, and common pleats.
Besides those features, a dictionary is just better for looking up words.
Here’s an example: Once, for a blog post, I was trying to use a word to describe the edge of some kinds of coral. I thought it was “crenelated,” but double consonants are my Achilles’ heel (I usually look up “accommodate” too, just in case) and I realized that the right spelling might really be “crenellated.”
It turns out that “crenelated” and “crenellated” are both acceptable spellings. But they were the wrong word. “Crenelated” means having battlements or squared notches. “Crenulate”—the very next entry in the dictionary—means “having tiny notches or scallops, as some leaves or shells.” I used the right word and went on with my day. (Fun fact: WordPress’s automatic spellcheck rejects both crenulate and crenellated. Phooey on you, crinkly red underlines.)
You don’t get that kind of serendipity when you search for a word online. Google “crenelated” and you get definitions of “crenelated.” Look up “crenelated” in a dictionary and not only will you find out that you’re a dope who’s trying to use words above your pay grade, but you’ll also have an opportunity to learn about Creon, a king of Thebes who had his niece entombed alive because she defied him (see Antigone); crewel, a kind of yarn used in embroidery (I had no idea, and I own a lot of yarn, including some that I now think is crewel); and cricetid, a member of a family of rodents that includes hamsters.
Bonus: I can now pronounce “cricetid,” information I would not have if I’d come across the word somewhere and looked it up on Wikipedia.
Ok, I’ll tell you. It’s kri-SET-id.
I haven’t been using this dictionary very much lately. Last month I started a new job, which means my home dictionaries are neglected, along with my home everything else. (Sorry, freelance computer. I still love you.)
One of the first things I asked for at my new job, though? A dictionary. Another writer gave me a Webster’s he never uses. And I forge on, looking up words the old-fashioned way.
photo: Helen Fields