Thursday, February 4, 2010

Go Look It Up

While I admittedly have a soft spot for atlases - the hours of fun perusing places I'll never visit, like Vienna or Wisconsin - I also have a fondness for the atlas's verbose twin, the dictionary. Reading Infinite Jest this summer taught me to have one finger on the page and another frantically leafing through my shoddy "student dictionary" which, shockingly, failed to define "erumpent." What a crock.

While my crush on A.J. Jacobs was definitely solidified by his hilariously literal attempt to live the Bible's rules, he really caught my attention when he wrote about reading the Encyclopedia. Lo, that multi-volumed set was a real spine-masher, but he read the sucker. In the process, he irritated his wife, learned that Charles Darwin married his cousin, and got a book deal. I'm not nearly as hardcore about my information acquisition; I prefer to leaf through the dictionary when I'm reduced to trolling for crossword answers, a habit I feel is morally better than just Googling the answer. Full disclosure: my sister and I also have a weekly phone date, where we help each other out with the Globe and Mail's puzzle. We are unrepentant cheaters.

Be it an atlas, an encyclopedia or a dictionary, the fact is, human beings love to fussbudget around with information. I just read an article on the revision of the Oxford English Dictionary, that old flag-bearer and the former home for defintions like the one for "prothodaw," which you can pull out at your next family reunion: it means "a prime simpleton, a noodle of the first rank." Now there's an insult! Apparently the OED is revising, and to make room for nonsense words like "Google," they're tightening up "prothodaw," which is now a businesslike "complete idiot." Nice, but it doesn't sing the way that other one does.

What happens to us when the dictionary changes? I feel a sense of loss for words that no longer make the cut, because we lose tiny bits of our collective past. Editing is good: it keeps us tight, keeps the prose lean and the story sharp. But it also relieves us of moments of precision, or even worse, erudition. Words are fun! Let's keep them around!

My personal favourite is The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, noted he-man-woman-hater and satirist of the first rank. Written in 1911, Bierce is not exactly a thigh-slapper of the most recent vintage, but still rates a smirk from this university student when he defines a "lecturer" as "one with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear and his faith in your patience." There are other non-canonical dictionaries out there (the Urban one maybe the most notable for our timeslice), but Bierce's is my favourite because it both introduces me to new words (encomiast, anyone?) and makes me smile at contemporary ones ("radicalism: the conservatism of tomorrow injected in the affairs of today.")

Dictionaries are fun to leaf through, because they're organized in such a way that "amanuensis" and "alter ego" are nestled in but good. They're a primo spot for nerdette kids like me to hang out. Dictionaries are all about uncontextualized information, crap that you can spout out at some later date, impressing some (a treasured few), and leaving you, the reader, with a gee-whiz sense of wonder at just how filigreed and amazing something like language can actually be. They work the same way atlases do: creating worlds other than our tiny own, acting as a kaleidescope for the possibilities.

As sources of information, yeah, sure, meh: now we have the internet, so we've built our grand dictionary out of zeroes and ones. On the other hand, the physical act of looking something up in a book has become such a radical throwback that it's almost necessary to luxuriate in the act inself. Taking in the words hidden in our search for information allows us to learn things we didn't know we wanted to learn. In that, the dictionary is far superiour than some johnny-come-lately internet, which faithfully feeds us only what we wanted to know. Dictionaries, in addition to teaching us information, also teach us curiosity. Nice work for a collection of words that don't even tell a story.

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