I can’t remember how old I was when I first learned the words instruction (definition of a word) and Meaning (suggesting a word). But I remember feeling a little betrayed by the idea that there was a whole layer of language that couldn’t be expressed through a dictionary. Like most young people, I enjoyed learning, but I thought it was something I would get over eventually. At some age, I assumed, I would need to know everything. Understanding the nuances of language seemed like an obstacle to that goal.
It wasn’t until I graduated college, and later realized that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge that I could read for pleasure. A sense of curiosity rather than desperate perfectionism drove me. I began to see dictionaries as field guides to the life of language, as they are. Watching words come out in the wild feels less like a failure than admitting that there are so many things I don’t know and opportunity to discover how many.
I prize my 1954 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, which I picked up a few years ago across the street near my apartment in Brooklyn. Its 3,000 pages (India Paper, with Marble Four Edge) are punctuated by the index of a thumb. I keep it open, alone on a tabletop, the way dictionaries are usually found in libraries. I often recommend it during an evening game of Scrabble or mid-day magazine-reading. I read novels in bed, most nights, so when I find unfamiliar words, I dog-ear down the page, then look up the words rapidly. When I begin to encounter these words, which, to my pattern-seeking mind, appear in articles, podcasts, other books, and even the occasional conversation, the linguistic universe is the size of a small town. seems to shrink. Dictionaries amplify my senses, almost like some mind-altering substances: they turn my attention outward, into conversation with language. They make me wonder what other things I’m blind to because I haven’t taught myself to notice them yet. Recently observed specimens include constellation, “A mechanical model, usually clockwork, devised to represent the motion of the Earth and the Moon (and sometimes the planets) around the Sun.” The Oxford English Dictionary also tells me that the word comes from the 4th Earl of Orrey, for whom a copy of the first machine was made around 1700. useful? Of course not. satisfactory? In depth.
With dictionaries, unknown words become unsolvable mysteries. Why leave them to guess?
Wikipedia and Google answer questions with more questions, opening up pages of information you never asked for. But a glossary uses simple words on common sense to explain more complex terms. Using one feels like cracking open an oyster rather than falling down the rabbit hole. Unknown words become unsolvable mysteries. Why leave them to guess? Why not consult a dictionary and feel the instant gratification of adding context to a definition? Dictionaries reward you for paying attention to both what you consume and your own curiosity. They’re a portal to judging irrational, childish kinds Know The things I had before learning became a duty rather than a game. I get the most out of words that don’t mean exactly what I thought they meant. like signet. Which has nothing to do with rings or stationery. (It’s a young swan.)
Of course, there are many different types of dictionaries. The way they have grown over time is a reminder of how meaningless it is to see language as something that can be fully understood and contained. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, defined a modest 40,000 words. The original OED, proposed by the Philological Society of London in 1857 and completed more than 70 years later, contained over 400,000 entries. Whose direct descendant is the Merriam-Webster universe? Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. Compiled by Webster alone over the course of more than 20 years, it contained 70,000 words, about a fifth of which had never been defined before. Webster, who corresponded with founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, saw the terminology as an act of patriotism. He believed that establishing American standards of spelling and definition was necessary to differentiate the young nation’s cultural identity from that of England.
Perhaps because of Webster’s enthusiasm for rules, dictionaries have had an unfair reputation as arbiters of language, as tools used to limit rather than expand your range of expression. But dictionaries don’t make languages - people do. to take AmateurThe superficial meaning of the word is a modern invention. Noah Webster’s aforementioned American Dictionary defines it as “a person who takes pleasure in promoting the science or fine arts”. The OED cites its connection to the Latin verb Pleasure, which means “to please or to please.” Being dilent once meant that love and curiosity piqued your interest in a given discipline. To me, dictionaries are a portal into that kind of unaccounted learning. 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 meditation? Pursuing your curiosity rather than pursuing it is one of the best ways I know to engage with 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.