Bentzman

Suburban Soliloquy

#102.

 

Dictionaries

We make our lives about words and their meanings. Some of us do it consciously, others automatically and so are unaware. For most it is enough to use the vocabulary they've come by naturally, unconsciously, and I have met people who lead lives without dictionaries in their homes. To live without a dictionary is baffling to me. I was astonished to discover there are dictionaries published without definitions for users who want only to correct their spelling, who don't want to bother with any word for which they don't already know the meaning. I imagine there are dictionary fanatics who collect roomfuls of dictionaries, can recite the publishing history and influence dictionaries have had. I probably have more dictionaries than most, but not as many as some.

I do have a shelf devoted to dictionaries, not a few of them curious specimens that anyone who knows me would wonder why I have them, like Gail Grant's Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet or the Texas Atomic Energy Research Foundation's A Glossary of Terms Used in Nuclear and Plasma Physics. Others are forgivable doorways leading to paths of personal interest, off on a tangent exploring material I won't use but will feed my imagination, like The Harper Dictionary of Music. (According to the inscription, it had once belonged to a certain Barry Teitelbaum in 1989, given to him as a Musicianship Award. Why did Mr Teitelbaum allow it to part from his hands? If he knew I had it, would he want it back?) Or Oscar A. Mendelsohn's The Dictionary of Drink and Drinking. And yet another, C. Hayward's Dictionary of Courtesans. And some simply had irresistible titles, like Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld (British & American): Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, the Commercial Underworld, the Drug Traffic, the White Slave Traffic, Spivs.

Five feet from my desk atop a dictionary stand is my old Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, 1969. A magnifying glass rests atop this fat tome of nearly three thousand pages of tissue-like Bible paper. I don't use it anymore. It is too delicate, crimps too easily, but primarily it is out of reach. To get to it is a difficult squeeze past the recliner and bookcase. I have sometimes crawled under my desk to reach it. But there is no need for me to go through such contortions because I have a better dictionary in my computer, the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, 1999. And when I am online, the dictionary I use is bigger still than the two just mentioned. It is a website on the internet called OneLook [http://www.onelook.com/]. It incorporates many of the other dictionaries available online. The last time I checked, it claimed "7,511,869 words in 931 dictionaries indexed".

Among the people with whom I socialize, one can find different loyalties to different dictionaries. I'm no different. I used to have an excellent desk dictionary, the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. It had a terrific collection of appendices that gave foreign phrases, geographical names, biographical names, appropriate salutations when addressing various titled persons, and a superb summary of the rules of punctuation. O why did I give it up? Why did I not replace it with another of its kind when I had worn it out?

The reason why is because Ms Keogh, my British born more significant other, talked me out of it. When the time came to buy a new one, Ms Keogh convinced me to buy The Oxford Modern English Dictionary. Why? Because she was enamored with the name and reputation associated with Oxford - even though her father did his graduate and postgraduate work in theoretical mathematics at Cambridge - but then who can deny the fame of the "complete" Oxford Dictionary? Most of my adult life I wanted the multi-volumed, unabridged Oxford Dictionary decorating my shelves and not the "compact" edition. My friends bought that compacted edition, where each page incorporated nine photo-reduced pages of the original. Many of them joined the Book-of-the-Month Club to get it at a discount. Now their eyes are thirty years older - ha! Well, some of them make good incomes and probably now have it on CD.

Very well, I was also a little enamored with the name "Oxford". So I bought the desk edition and I even bought a second volume, The Pocket Oxford Dictionary. Pocket!?! Almost 7 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and a whopping 2 3/8th inches thick, those are some pockets they have in England! Me, I carry it in my briefcase. A curious thing, my pocket version has 140,000 defined words while my desk edition has 10,000 less.

Earlier today I decided I would replace my two Oxford dictionaries. What happened is this. Three times I resorted to those dictionaries to look-up common enough words and three times I didn't find them. I was so angry, I was determined to go out and buy new dictionaries immediately.

What were the three words? Loupe, Uranus, and daiquiri. I knew how to spell "loupe". I just needed a little reassurance that there was an "e" on the end. I definitely knew how to spell "Uranus", possessing the kind of sense of humor you might expect. I just wanted to confirm it was the eighth planet and not Neptune. Turns out Neptune is the eighth planet. As for "daiquiri", I just didn't know how to spell it. In truth, it was in the dictionaries, but it's that old story, how do you look up a word you don't know how to spell. I sought it under d-a-q. I found it by going to my Random House dictionary in my computer and doing a reverse search by definition. I entered the one word "cocktail" and a long list presented itself, I just looked at those beginning with "d".

Well, I didn't rush out and replace my two Oxford dictionaries. It was, after all, only two words and not three. My anger was disarmed. In the privacy of my study, I suffered through the embarrassment of having insulted my two Oxford dictionaries about the word "daiquiri" when all the time it was my ignorance. They had earned a reprieve, but I'm still thinking about replacing them.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"