A Defining Presence
An old friend helps me remember
“memory (MEM-ə-rē), n. the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving impressions, or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences.”
When’s the last time you opened a dictionary?
Not like a webpage or an app, but an actual, physical dictionary.
Tabbed, heavy, and filled with thousands of words, it’s a different experience than using any number of online resources, including dictionary.com (and its close relative thesaurus.com), relatedwords.org or the king of social media wordplay shade, Merriam-Webster.com.
To open a dictionary is to enter the past. It’s a relic — a snapshot of the era in which it was published, a time-stamp that forever locks words in amber.
But the dictionary is also a link to the present — a physical manifestation of knowledge, a sensory-rich experience of sight, sound, touch, and smell as we leaf through its musty pages to find information we need now.
I had the occasion to consult a printed dictionary last week and it was like revisiting my childhood, partly because I still have the dictionary we had in our house when I was growing up: a 1968 first printing of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, College Edition.
It’s the dictionary that helped me understand confusing words as a young reader, helped me check spelling in early research papers (“How do you look up a word if you don’t know how it’s spelled?” I remember asking), and acted as the compact go-to resource, even after we acquired a set of encyclopedias.
This book traveled with me to college in Boston, standing guard as a quiet but all-knowing sentinel on the small shelf above my dorm-standard desk, its reassuring presence reminding me where I was going and where I had been.
These days some [mumble, mumble] years later, the ease of pulling up an online dictionary outweighs the effort it takes to extract myself from a squeaky chair, traverse the room and wonder if the popping sound is coming my knees or the floorboards, and pull down the trusty volume from a sagging bookshelf.
And yet, rather than finding myself going down the rabbit-hole of online resources, I find the extra effort that Rachel del Valle said “feels like prying open an oyster” worth the juicy reward.
But rather than rush to the thumb-tabbed section where a word resides, I opened the book — yes, the dictionary is a book, but how frequently we debiblify it by calling it simply “the dictionary.”
And yes, I just invented a word, the bibliographic equivalent of “dehumanize.”
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This first printing of the RHD (as its editors call it) begins emitting information before you even turn a page: the endpapers are filled with reference material, such as an etymology key, a pronunciation key, a list of abbreviated languages, foreign sounds and alphabets, and weights and measures.
Inside, aside from the A–Z sections, there is a historical sketch of the English language, a guide to the dictionary, a directory of U.S. colleges and universities, a list of English given names, signs and symbols (in astronomy, biology, chemistry, chess, commerce, math, medicine, music, physics, and religion), proofreading marks, the periodic table of the elements, and a basic manual of style.
And there’s a preface that I don’t think I’ve ever read before (who reads a preface to a dictionary?).
Editor in Chief Laurence Urdang either had blind faith that readers were as lexicographically disposed as he, or chose to keep himself hidden from reality as he wrote the preface.
He made it clear that the dictionary is (or at least was) something akin to internet access in the late 1960s:
“The dictionary has traditionally been the only source of information on language for the majority of people. In it, they expect to find how word is spelled, how it may be hyphenated, how it is pronounced, what its various forms are, what its meanings are, and what its origins and history are.
They also expect to find whether a word is technical or general, whether it can be used in public company or not, and even whether someone who is called a certain word is justified in feeling offended. They want unfamiliar objects illustrated and particular places pinpointed on maps; they want biographical information, geographical, demographic, and political data, abbreviations, symbols, synonyms, antonyms, usage notes — in short, people expect to find condensed between the covers of a dictionary the knowledge of the world as reflected in their language.
Above all, they demand that this knowledge be accurate and up-to-date. Indeed, why not? The dictionary is often the only reference book of any kind that many people ever own.”
A 1968 edition of the RHD is no longer up-to-date; indeed, it was already out-of-date even in my childhood.
As one compact volume, it looks anemic next to the 20-volume set of The Oxford English Dictionary.
The gilt letters are worn from its cover, its corners are bumped, and its hinges are weak.
But it’s a part of me. An appendage that feels like an old friend.
An old friend who greets me with a warm embrace of hundreds of memories from my formative years.
One who knows me and welcomes me back, regardless of how long we’ve been apart.
When’s the last time a website made you feel like that?
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Oh, and here are two related dictionary-centric Off the Clocks: