I can’t remember how old I was when I first learned these words indicate (definition of a word) and meaning (hint of a word). But I remember feeling a bit betrayed by the idea that there was a whole class of languages that couldn’t be conveyed through dictionaries. Like most young people, I love learning but think of it as something I will eventually accomplish. At a certain age, I think I need to know everything. Understanding the nuances of language seems to be an obstacle to that goal.
It wasn’t until after I graduated from college, and then realized that there is no such thing as complete knowledge, that I could read for fun. A sense of curiosity, rather than utter despair, drove me. I began to view dictionaries, not exactly as they were, as field guides to the life of the language. Looking up words encountered in the wild is not more of a failure than an admission that there is so much I don’t know and an opportunity to discover how much.
I reward Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition 1954, which I picked up on the street near my apartment in Brooklyn a few years ago. Its 3,000 pages (Indian paper, with a marble front edge) are marked with a thumb index. I left it open, alone on the tabletop, the way dictionaries are often found in libraries. I often refer to it during evening Scrabble games or reading magazines in the afternoon. I mostly read novels at night, in bed, so when I come across unfamiliar words, I pay attention to the bottom of the page, then slowly look up. When I began to encounter these words, freshly lit up in my pattern-searching mind, in articles, podcasts, other books, and even occasional conversation, the universe of languages seemed to me. shrunk to the size of a small town. Dictionaries enhance my senses, almost like certain mind-altering substances: They direct my attention outward, into conversation with language. They make me wonder about other things that I’m blind to because I haven’t taught myself to notice them. Recently discovered specimens include challenges, “A mechanical model, usually the hands of a clock, made to represent the motion of the earth and moon (and sometimes planets) around the sun.” The Oxford English Dictionary also tells me that the word comes from the fourth Earl of Orrery, who made a copy of the first machine around 1700. Does it help? Obviously not. Satisfied? Deep.
With dictionaries, unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why let them guess?
Wikipedia and Google answer questions with more questions, opening pages of information you never asked for. But dictionaries are built on common knowledge, using simple words to explain more complex words. Using one feels more like opening an oyster than falling down a rabbit hole. Unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why let them guess? Why not consult a dictionary and feel the instant gratification of pairing context with a definition? The dictionary rewards you for paying attention, both to the things you consume and to your own curiosity. They are a portal to the absurd, childish urge to point know the things that I had before studying became an obligation instead of a game. I am most interested in words that make absolutely no sense as I thought. As cygnet. Nothing to do with rings or stationery. (It was a young swan.)
Of course, there are many different types of dictionaries. The way they proliferate over time is a reminder of how futile it is to approach language as something that can be fully understood and contained. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, defines about 40,000 tiny words. The original OED, proposed by the Philosophical Society of London in 1857 and completed more than 70 years later, contains more than 400,000 entries. The Merriam-Webster Universe is a direct descendant of Noah Webster’s American English Dictionary, published in 1828. Compiled by Webster alone over the course of 20 years, it contains 70,000 words, nearly one-fifth of which have never been written before. Yes. previously determined. Webster, who corresponded with founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, saw vocabulary learning as an act of patriotism. He believed that the establishment of American spelling and definition standards was necessary to strengthen the cultural identity of the young nation, separate from the cultural identity of Britain.
Perhaps because of Webster’s enthusiasm for rules, dictionaries have long earned a reputation as unfair as arbiter of language, as tools used to restrict rather than open. widen your range of expression. But dictionaries don’t make languages - people do. Take it Elderly: The superficial meaning of this word is a modern invention. Noah Webster’s aforementioned American dictionary defines it as “one who likes to promote science or art”. OED cites its connection to the Latin verb delicious food, which means “to please or please.” Becoming a master used to mean that love and curiosity drove your interest in a certain discipline. For me, dictionaries are a gateway to a kind of non-computational search for knowledge. They remind me that, when it comes to learning, sparking your curiosity is just as important as paying attention. After all, isn’t curiosity really just another form of attention? Following your curiosity instead of brushing it off is one of the best ways I know of to feel connected to more of what’s right in front of you.
Rachel del Valle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ and Real Life Magazine.