One of the sweetest pleasures in life is finding an old love. I’m currently enjoying the rebirth of one of those romances, with a well-dressed Oxford charmer whose linguistic brilliance reduces me to a cheerful idiot. I now know what a Mr. Tharoor feels like. The attractions of a pocket dictionary, the kind you wear to bed, are not to be laughed at. They are to be delicately savored like an elaborate cerebral striptease conducted only for your gratification.
High on knowledge
I wouldn’t call myself a âsapiosexualâ – someone turned on by intelligence – although, of course, that helps. But losing myself in this voluminous edition reveals how much I depend on language for more than just basic communication. Language is an ever-expanding playground, and a dictionary is full of unauthorized pleasures. Its alphabet format – a beautiful word that means classified alphabetically – simply gives it an air of order and decorum. In reality, he is a devilish and mythical being, the keeper of all words and therefore the holder of all possibilities.
Forgive me for soaring, but like the Alice in Wonderland caterpillar sitting on a mushroom, smoking a hookah, I too feel pretty high. And to think that I had despised the right book for the convenience of a digital dictionary all these years. I’m eternally grateful for everything internet related, but lately I’ve been uncomfortable typing unfamiliar words on my phone while reading a physical book. While walking, speaking or more generally while living, I find the digressions delicious. And a physical dictionary is a space where all kinds of intellectual wanderings become possible. You might not know where you are going in there, but you are still safe in its pages.
The verbose Mr. Johnson
My mind goes to Samuel Johnson, the most famous lexicographer in Western history. A man from the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment, his keen intelligence and vast knowledge led him to create A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, the prototype of the dictionaries we still use today. And as anyone who’s taken more than three pub quizzes will tell you, it’s usually the answer to any question relating to the 18th century. My all-time favorite quote from the wise and wise man remains: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
But like everyone else, he too was a product of his time and his social class. A devout Anglican and a member of the ruling elite, his opinions and prejudices have made their way into his lexicography and from there, subliminally, into the minds of countless readers. But then, politics and language have always been intertwined. Today, when a popular website like Dictionary.com uses an awakened voice on social media, it is carrying on an old tradition. Dictionaries can also be read like stories, so it is important to know which voice we are letting into our consciousness and why.
A linguistic orgy
For all the joys of getting lost in a maze of printed words, there are real challenges. I am currently reading H is for Hawk, a personal memoir which is exceptionally wise and moving. But author, Helen Macdonald, isn’t one to lead her reader into uncharted territory – and what could be more unknown than a woman training a recalcitrant hawk while mourning her recently deceased father? A science historian, Macdonald uses language that is both broad and precise, and she sends me running to my sneaky pocket dictionary every few paragraphs. The volume draws me in with a sufficiently obscure and tantalizing word and the next thing I know I’m caught in a linguistic orgy, pounding like a bird ruffling its feathers after a fight.
I’ll definitely save more time if I stick to a woken up online dictionary, with progressive politics as a bonus. In addition, I will spare myself the sudden panic of encountering words like “isohyet” (a line on a map connecting points with the same amount of precipitation in a given period) or “nudiustertien” (from or related to the day before yesterday). ), strangers who approach you when you browse familiar pages. As always, I choose recklessness. This sneaky dictionary has me in his pocket.
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From Brunch HT, September 12, 2021
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