I can’t bear in mind how previous I used to be once I first realized the phrases denotation (the definition of a phrase) and connotation (the suggestion of a phrase). But I do bear in mind feeling a little betrayed by the concept that there was a entire layer of language that couldn’t fairly be conveyed by a dictionary. Like most younger folks, I loved studying however thought of it as one thing I might finally be carried out with. At some age, I assumed, I would wish to know every part. Understanding the nuances of language appeared like an impediment to that purpose.
It wasn’t till after I graduated from school, and subsequently realized that there’s no such factor as all-encompassing information, that I used to be in a position to learn for pleasure. A way of curiosity, relatively than determined completism, steered me. I began to see dictionaries, inexact as they’re, as discipline guides to the life of language. Looking up phrases encountered in the wild felt much less like a failing than like an admission that there are heaps of issues I don’t know and a chance to find simply what number of.
I prize my 1954 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, which I picked up on the avenue close to my condominium in Brooklyn a few years in the past. Its three,000 pages (India paper, with a marbled fore edge) are punctuated by a thumb index. I maintain it open, solitary on a tabletop, the means dictionaries are normally discovered in libraries. I typically seek the advice of it throughout night video games of Scrabble or noon magazine-reading. I largely learn novels at night time, in mattress, so once I come throughout unfamiliar phrases, I dog-ear the backside of the web page, then look phrases up in spurts. When I begin encountering these phrases, newly resplendent to my pattern-seeking thoughts, in articles, podcasts, different books and even the occasional dialog, the linguistic universe appears to shrink to the measurement of a small city. Dictionaries heighten my senses, virtually like sure mind-altering substances: They direct my consideration outward, into a dialog with language. They make me marvel what different issues I’m blind to as a result of I haven’t taught myself to note them but. Recently noticed specimens embrace orrery, “a mechanical model, usually clockwork, devised to represent the motions of the earth and moon (and sometimes also the planets) around the sun.” The Oxford English Dictionary additionally tells me that the phrase comes from the fourth Earl of Orrery, for whom a copy of the first machine was made, round 1700. Useful? Obviously not. Satisfying? Deeply.
With dictionaries, unknown phrases turn into solvable mysteries. Why go away them as much as guesswork?
Wikipedia and Google reply questions with extra questions, opening up pages of info you by no means requested for. But a dictionary builds on widespread information, utilizing easy phrases to elucidate extra advanced ones. Using one seems like prying open an oyster relatively than falling down a rabbit gap. Unknown phrases turn into solvable mysteries. Why go away them as much as guesswork? Why not seek the advice of a dictionary and really feel the immediate gratification of pairing context with a definition? Dictionaries reward you for paying consideration, each to the belongings you eat and to your personal curiosity. They are a portal into the variety of irrational, infantile urge to only know issues that I had earlier than studying grew to become a responsibility as an alternative of a recreation. I’m most amused by phrases that completely don’t imply what I believed they meant. Like cygnet. Which has nothing to do with rings or stationery. (It’s a younger swan.)
There are, of course, many alternative sorts of dictionaries. The means they’ve proliferated over time is a reminder of simply how futile it’s to method language as one thing that may be absolutely understood and contained. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, revealed in 1755, outlined a paltry 40,000 phrases. The authentic O.E.D., proposed by the Philological Society of London in 1857 and accomplished greater than 70 years later, contained over 400,000 entries. The Merriam-Webster universe is a direct descendant of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, revealed in 1828. Compiled by Webster alone over the course of greater than 20 years, it contained 70,000 phrases, practically a fifth of which had by no means been outlined earlier than. Webster, who corresponded with founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, noticed lexicography as an act of patriotism. He believed that establishing American requirements of spelling and definition was essential to solidify the younger nation’s cultural identification as separate from that of England.
Perhaps as a result of of Webster’s enthusiasm for guidelines, dictionaries have lengthy had an unfair fame as arbiters of language, as instruments used to restrict relatively broaden your vary of expression. But dictionaries don’t create language — folks do. Take dilettante: The superficial connotation of the phrase is a trendy invention. Noah Webster’s aforementioned American Dictionary defines it as “one who delights in promoting science or the fine arts.” The O.E.D. cites its connection to the Latin verb delectare, which means “to delight or please.” To be a dilettante as soon as meant that love and curiosity drove your curiosity in a given self-discipline. For me, dictionaries are a portal into that sort of uncalculated knowledge-seeking. They remind me that, on the subject of studying, indulging your curiosity is simply as necessary as paying consideration. After all, isn’t curiosity actually simply one other kind of consideration? Following your curiosity as an alternative of swatting it away is one of the finest methods I do know to really feel linked to greater than what’s proper in entrance of you.
Rachel del Valle is a freelance author whose work has appeared in GQ and Real Life Magazine.