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Dictionaries

This, I’m sure, will shock you all: I like words. As a result, and because I like to win arguments, and also because Brent loves me and wants me to be happy, I have the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in the brains of my computer. (There is a reason I don’t have the whole enchilada, but I don’t remember what it is. I had one that ran on Mac OS 9, but I don’t run that anymore because the future will attack me one way or another no matter what I do. I am not running out of words, so I am not complaining. I have a very cool dictionary.)

I did not buy the pocket dictionary on the book list for my class. What for? I already have a better one.

Even if I bring my laptop to school with me, my computer-based OED is not acceptable for my class. If I want to get the 15 points for completing my homework assignment (buy your books and bring them to class), I have to bring a physical dictionary to school with me.

Which left me at the intersection of snobbery, cheapness, and need for approval.

I haven’t checked through Brent’s books, but most of them are in boxes anyway, awaiting relocation into the spiffy new shelves in our room, so I don’t know what his tally of dictionaries comes out to. I suspect he still has any dictionaries he has ever owned; he’s that kind of person.

In English, we have a Random House Unabridged Dictionary (although mine is older than the one in the link) the size of a small house. We have a pocket thesaurus (today, by the way, is Roget’s birthday and I learned from the Writer’s Almanac that he named his book a thesaurus because it means “treasure” in Greek.) and a big one. We have a rhyming dictionary that I received as a prize for eighth-grade English. I do not have a pocket dictionary.

Fortunately, for sentimental reasons, I have my grandfather’s leather-bound Webster’s. It has his name stamped on the cover in gold. The endpapers are marbled. The copyright date is 1956. On the title page, it notes that it is on “thin paper,” which means that the book fits in my book bag.

The language, however, doesn’t still fit in 1956’s dictionary. Computer, for example, is simply the noun for one who computes, a variant of computist, a word itself unrecognized by the Word spell-check dictionary, but I will spare you my rant about Word’s poor vocabulary. This particular grandfather’s Webster’s snapshot of English definitely has the white borders and glossy finish typical of the time.

My grandfather died when I was 11, but his ability to speak and think and move had died much earlier. I remember playing hide-and-seek with him when I was three. I also remember sitting in a hospital waiting room, my legs swinging, my parents and Grandma Marian tense and not explaining anything; my grandfather had had a heart attack and was dead for several minutes before they were able to revive his body. His mind was never the same. My sense, then, of his personality is based in memory and rumor. I think he would appreciate the irony of my dictionary situation (He also, I expect, would decry my worship of the OED because he seems to have been relentlessly American in his taste, a scholar of Thoreau and Twain.).

I’m not sure what the meaning of this story is, if it has one. Perhaps it is a story of privilege. I am fortunate to be dictionary-rich. Perhaps it is a story of colliding world-views. Maybe it is just a story about words.

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