Friday, December 18, 2009

Dictatorship, Dictatory, Diction, Dictionary

In the dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative, awakening my tired imagination to the hypnagogic trance of language. Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom, turning on the bedside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin sheets, thick with accented syllables–all are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages.

-Harryette Mullen, "Sleeping with the Dictionary"

In elementary school I had a paperback Bugs Bunny dictionary, pages well-thumbed to butter-softness, print large like in the books in the eye doctor's waiting room.

In middle school I had a thin Random House Webster's Student Notebook Dictionary, pages made of newsprint, three-hole-punched to fit into the front of my big plastic binder.

In high school I relied on the doorstop Merriam-Webster my family kept on the bottommost row of a living room bookshelf. It was a big block of a thing with miniscule print. Its weight conveyed its dependability.

I didn't pack a dictionary when I moved to college. I don't know when exactly I started relying solely on the Internet to look up definitions, pronunciations, etymologies, translations. But since then my book collection and my desk have been devoid of a print dictionary, and I can't say I feel the loss. A friend recently told me she and her roommates keep one on their coffee table- like a book of photographs, or a magazine, or a vase of flowers.

I have set as one of my search providers on both my work and home computers, and I use it frequently. I may not be able to "clutch the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings", but I'd ask Harryette Mullen: can you discover the origins of whole phrases? Can you hear a pronunciation aloud, in a pleasant British voice, no less? Can you translate to and from over 40 languages?

Online dictionaries enable users to scroll through words in alphabetical order, just as I can flip through the pages of my family's hardback tome. So they afford the same basic usage, but treat this function as a platform off of which to spring into linguistic riches. Should a physical dictionary hold sentimental value, I would of course support its owner's endorsement. And, as always, I can relate to the comfort of holding a book in your hands, feeling confident in your mastery over it because of the physicality of the possession. There's no intimidation, no overwhelming sense of the illimitable reaches, because you can confirm at a physical level what the book contains. Sometimes when you sit with hand hovering over mouse, eyes flitting like fireflies over your computer screen, it can feel like you're at the lip of the Grand Canyon. Yet from an informational standpoint I think online dictionaries are a paragon of how technology can revolutionize the written materials in our lives.

Maybe, too, they're not just well-suited to Cyberland, but somehow intended for it, in its synergistic capacity?

Fact-checking for magazines sometimes includes verifying accurate word usage. I quickly learned during one of my editorial internships that "" is shorthand for Merriam Webster's site. I used to then find myself wondering just how, exactly, the process of sanctioning new dictionary entries works. The question is particularly relevant in light of the 2009 crowning of the New Oxford American Dictionary's "word of the year" (ancient news, but worth mentioning). And here are some even more ancient neologisms.

Oxford University Press, publisher of the preeminent OED in addition to the New Oxford American, apparently implements an expansive project called the Reading Programme whose research team constantly examines printed materials for word lightbulbs (either new terms or new usages of terms). The general public, too, submits thousands of suggestions to the dictionary. The OED’s original editor James Murray during his tenure published an “Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public of Great Britain, America and the British Colonies” in an effort to cast forth his nets and receive word of… well, words. Of course, the Oxford wordworms prioritize longevity of each suggested coinage to ensure its lasting absorption into the English language. Credible, and manifold, sources are other obvious gauges of OED-worthiness.

In all, then, the process seems simple. More of an art form than a science, which is logical. Perhaps this sense of universal teamwork, an ongoing and impartial project to collectively enhance the completeness of our language, is just as edifying as the final product itself. And, further, aren't collaboration, connection, global engagement the calling cards of the Internet? It's called the World Wide Web for a reason.

I say keep your great uncle Roy's handbound, gold-embossed dictionary, and cherish it. But also celebrate this rare uncontroversial concession to the digital remodeling of print.

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