In his book, “A Man of My Words” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), professional linguist Richard Lederer, writes, “An old dictionary is … nice to have around but of little practical use. Unless you’re a collector, replace old dictionaries with ones published within the past 10 years at least.” Alarmed, I run to my library…
… and examine my American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition, 2001): heavily creased spine, side of front cover torn almost halfway, yellowed pages, soiled plastic covering. But in generally decent condition.
On the other hand, my Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus (2nd edition, 1999) is bent out of shape ”“ literally. Its spine, exposed to constant stress, has broken, rendering it flat when opened. I notice the date I’ve inscribed inside: November 11, 2000. Time to get a new one.
I keep two sets of dictionaries at all times, one at my desk where I work, the other by my bedside. I’m a voracious reader, and when I come across a word I’m unfamiliar with, I look it up right away. Same goes with the thesaurus. I loathe using the same words all the time in my writing: nicely spiced, varying textures, doubly bubbly, etc. It’s because as a reader, I have little patience for lifestyle writers who write like they attended the same journalism course, cranking out tired phrases such as “amazing texture,” “melts in the mouth,” and my absolute favorite, “to die for desserts.” Eeek. (Regular DCF readers will know that I’ve never used this phrase in my website. It’s practically verboten for me). And as Mark Twain said, “Eschew surplusage,” so I’m careful not to overdo (and overuse) my adjectives.
Buying a new dictionary and thesaurus is serious business for me. For the former, I have two criteria: it must have the definition of what I call my “newly-discovered” word; in 2000, I bought the first dictionary that had the word, “inimitable.” It’s very common now yes, but back then, I couldn’t understand why it was a no-show in many dictionaries. Secondly, I want a dictionary with an easy to read pronunciation guide, devoid of a system using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which is like trying (and failing) to read Greek.
I’m less stringent with my thesaurus criteria. It just has to have a user-friendly A-Z order where I’m able to find the word(s) I’m looking for quickly and logically. Naturally, having extra features like parts of speech, abbreviations, antonyms, and cross-references are a boost too.
In my search for a new dictionary and thesaurus this year, I go to numerous National Bookstores, three Fully Booked branches, and almost all of the Powerbooks outlets. I find my thesaurus almost immediately, the Random House Webster’s Everyday Thesaurus (copyright 2002). What a friendly title! And, unlike dictionaries, thesauruses have longer shelf lives than dictionaries.
My dictionary search is more exhaustive. For this go-round, my “newly-discovered” word is copacetic, a fascinating word that I first came across in Bobby Chinn’s cookbook. Just like “inimitable” back in 2000, not many current dictionaries carry this word that means, “completely satisfactory.” Of the few that do, I bring home the Microsoft Encarta Dictionary (copyright 2004), subtitled The First Dictionary For the Internet Age. Despite its title, there’s nothing in the reference that suggests it’s connected in any way to the THE Microsoft we’re all familiar with. By the way, I prefer paperback dictionaries and thesauruses since the large, hardbound ones have onion skin-paper and are heavy. It’s a reference, not a weapon, yes?
As I write this post, I’m surrounded by at least ten dictionaries of the English language. That’s not even counting all the other dictionaries on my shelf: food dictionaries, slang dictionary, rhyming dictionary, synonym and antonym dictionary, dictionary of problem words and expressions, and a Descriptionary, a thematic dictionary, “… the book for when you know what it is, but not what it’s called.” Yes, really.