When I was a girl in the dusty mining town of Globe, Arizona, with the sulfur odor in the air when the wind blew from the west, our house had a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bathroom with a tub but no shower. We had a basement with four rooms, two with dirt floors. We weren’t allowed to order ham sandwiches at the Rexall lunch counter because they were too expensive, and we had pinto beans with cornbread once a week for dinner. I don’t mean to suggest that we felt poor, but we were certainly aware that other families–mostly on the east side of town–had more than we did. However, we always had two things in our tiny frame house that I probably failed to appreciate at the time for the luxuries they were–a piano and a dictionary.
Our dictionary was large–not an unabridged version, but certainly bigger than what we now call college dictionaries. It was a reddish hardcover book with a gray dust jacket, ragged from use. When I was in the sixth grade, we had a homework assignment that required us to look up twenty words in the dictionary. I overheard one of my classmates asking Mr. Seeley if she could take home one of the school dictionaries so she could do the assignment. No one encountering for the first time the slums of Calcutta has ever experienced the shock of poverty so keenly; I had never imagined a home or a family without a dictionary.
That dictionary accompanied us to another house and took me through high school. It was the cause of much hilarity in my sophomore English class when I discovered a passage in the introduction that said, in reference to official pronunciations of words, “The dictionary is not intended as an instrument of torture.” I was even allowed to take it with me when I went away to college in Tucson.
Another dictionary occupies a corner of my heart as well. The Rayes family across the street bought an unabridged Webster’s dictionary on a stand. The day the dictionary came home, their sweet and gentle father wrote inside the cover, “I joined the Rayes family on __(date)__.” Mother, father, sister, and three brothers–at least one of whom was a college graduate by the time–all signed their names in a gesture of welcome.
And of course there is the OED. I got mine from the Book-of-the-Month Club for $39.95–a phenomenal deal I heard about from my professor of historiography and methodology. The 20 volumes are condensed into two, with four pages of the original on each Bible-paper page; it came with it own magnifying glass. I cannot count the hours I have spent looking up one word after another and being fascinated to see, quote by quote, how the meanings had changed over time.
I have indeed had many beloved dictionaries over the years–mostly American Heritage after my graduate-school professor of modern English grammar recommended it as the best. What she liked about it was the Indo-European roots. What I liked and still like is the usage notes. What I like even more is the Usage Panel–as close to the Académie française as we’ll ever get.
I waited for months (perhaps years) for the American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed., to come out as an iOS app and was delighted to pay the $24.99 to install it on my telephone and my iPad.
I always try to convince my students to use a dictionary often and well. I tell them about spending $24.99 for a dictionary on my phone. I tell them about listing words I didn’t know in the backs of all the books I read in college and then looking them up in the dictionary. I tell them that, as a result, I got 800 on the verbal section of the GRE. I tell them that I use the dictionary on my phone–every day! Earlier this week, I listed all the words I looked up while writing my latest blog post; I looked up 9 of 1,269 words. I knew them all–they came straight out of my head–but I wanted to be sure they meant precisely what I intended.
Yesterday, my husband asked me the definition of traduce, and I read him the definition from my phone. And then I said, “Here is an example of why I could never do without this dictionary.” After the first definition, I read, “See Synonyms at malign.” When I clicked on the latter word–this is iOS, after all!–I found a list of seven words (malign, defame, traduce, vilify, slander, calumniate, and libel). Each of these was followed by a brief and carefully nuanced description of its meaning, along with a sentence using the word:
Defame suggests damage to reputation through misrepresentation.
The plaintiff had been defamed and had legitimate grounds for a lawsuit.
Traduce connotes the humiliation or disgrace resulting from such damage.
“My character was traduced by Captain Hawkins . . . even the ship’s company cried out shame.” (Frederick Marryat)
And then, of course, there are the usage notes. Yes, there is one for issue, the topic of an early post on this blog (The Issue Issue). It begins, “People often use issue to refer to a problem, difficulty, or condition, especially an embarrassing or discrediting one. . . . Some people [including Boz] dislike this usage, claiming that it is imprecise or euphemistic.” The note goes on to reveal that from 2002-2013, the Usage Panel went from 39% to 78% who gave at least lukewarm acceptance to “That kid has issues and needs to see a guidance counselor.” The note concludes, “Although issue is now widely acceptable, choosing another word, such as glitch, problem, or complication, can often lend precision to your writing.”
What’s not to love?