On the Virtues of: Dictionaries

My introduction to dictionaries was early and paradoxical. They were simultaneously sources of frustration and illumination, roadblock and delight in one.

“Mommy! How do you spell [ɪntræktəbəl]?”

“Look it up in the dictionary, dear.”

This was the inevitable (and to my mind idiotic) answer to my frequent badgering about how to spell things I’d overheard.

“Mommy! How do you spell [prɛkoʊʃʌs]?You did not just say that. St. Denis

“Look it up in the dictionary, dear.”

“Mommy! How do you spell [ɪnkorɪd͡ʒɪbəl]?

“Look it up in the dictionary, dear.”

“Mom! Why is the vowel in /bɝp/ different from the one in /wɝm/ when they sound the same?”

[Readers are encouraged to insert their own heartfelt sigh of despair, for my mother, alas, did not share my delight in words like ‘burp’ and ‘worm’. Her sigh of despair was the soundtrack of my young life.]

I was equally despairing. After all, How the dickens was a gal supposed to look up a word she couldn’t spell? Grumbling, I’d start thumbing through our massive Webster’s. I would inevitably get distracted from the original word by something that seemed even better. I made the acquaintance of ‘inexorable’ that way and took great satisfaction in that discovery. Few things are as gratifying as finding just the right word, and ‘inexorable’ was the perfect word to describe my mother’s standards for her daughters (not that I said so out loud).

In the years since, I’ve collected and been given various dictionaries. In graduate school, my friend Charlotte blessed me with the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and it remains an enduring delight. The definitions are as trenchant as the words are diverting. Take, for example. buss beggar which means a superannuated fumbler, whom none but beggars will suffer to kiss them. Frankly, I’m more likely to use “superannuated fumbler,” but that’s just me.  

Some years after those early perambulations through Webster, I made the acquaintance of a dictionary that would change everything for me. Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary seemed like a humble enough book when I purchased it for an introductory course in Old English Language and Literature. I had no idea. I’d gone into grad school with the intention of doing Middle English literature, but that class in Old English changed everything. Here was English without any of that silly French influence! Here was English unadulterated by that ridiculous phenomenon called the Great Vowel Shift! Here was the perfect language for blissful maceration. [Read that sentence carefully, please, and then think Latin to macerate.]

Clark Hall in hand, I’d sit down to translate a passage of poetry and get lost jotting comments in the marginalia. Some words just tickled my fancy. What is there not to love about a word like offrungspic or “sacrificial bacon”? It makes you hungry and makes you laugh at one and the same time. Huzzah. Who among us hasn’t needed a word for “decoy reindeer” (staelhran)? And now, you have it. Then, there’s feaxfang, I believe it says a lot about a culture if it needs a noun for “seizing or dragging by the hair.”

The inside back cover of my Clark Hall soon became a mass of scribbles as I made notes of the words that were especially evocative. [It may help to know for what follows that: æ is the letter ‘ash’ and, conveniently, the vowel sound is that of ‘ash’ or /æʃ/; þ and ð are respectively the letters ‘thorn’ and ‘eth,’ and represent the ‘th’ sound both unvoiced /θ/ as in ‘smooth’ or voiced /ð/ as in ‘this’.] Here’s a sampling from the inside of that original cover:

gnyrnwracu – revenge, enmity

searocræft – treachery, art, engine, instrument of torture

wiþersaca – adversary, enemy

dierne – hidden, secret, remote (but also deceitful)

wyrmsele – hall of serpents (hell)

scinna – spectre, illusion, evil spirit,

hræwic – place of corpses

snædingsceap – sheep for slaughter

beorcholt– birch wood

twigærede  – cloven

ongalend – enchanter

Some words were discovered in getting lost in Clark Hall, others in context. Either way the words themselves began to weave bits of a history about me. The final consonantal slap of hræwic following that initial breathy expiration spread a battle-field before my eyes. Gnyrnwracu and twigærede became the warp and woof of a story of patient duplicity and vengeance.  Since, I’d never thought of writing novels (poetry was more my thing), the scribbling continued, and the images roiled, but I had not thought of going anywhere with it.

Then, one night after too many pots of Earl Grey and far, far too much Latin (probably papal bulls – I remember those being particularly excruciating), I lay sprawled upon the aforementioned Charlotte’s bed (beneficent giver of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue). When her fiancé came in to say good night, Charlotte (who has a rather imperial bearing) said, “Tell Liesl a bedtime story.”  Now, good friends are a blessing, but good friends who can tell whopping good stories are a treasure. That night Richard made up a fantastic story about a “dragon whose tongue was so wide that trucks could drive both ways on it.”

While the dragon of my histories is a smaller dragon than the one of Richard’s tale, the beast was inspired by his creation, and terribly inconvenient it has been! I’ve never been interested in writing fantastical stories. My stories were to be alternate history, not fantasy. So, it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to my characters when a dragon began to wrap its claws around their fortunes. Well, I blame Richard. He opened that can of wyrms although I suppose, if I’m to be honest, I’m the one who made the creature a wyrmsele.

3 thoughts on “On the Virtues of: Dictionaries

  1. I’m sure you will be proud of me when you hear that despite the fact that Old English was the absolute bane of my graduate school existence (although it became a bit more bearable when the original professor fell off his roof and broke his back and was replaced with a far more reasonable substitute professor), I found that I couldn’t part with that textbook and its multiple hand-made tabs when thinning the herd for our recent move. I doubt that it will accompany me into the coffin, but apparently it will be with me until I take up residence there.

    Oh, and the professor with the broken back did recover–but not until the semester was over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hah! I’ve heard students complain about OE being back breaking, but roof diving as a faculty member. Wow. What was the textbook? I want to see that “bane” that you can’t part with!


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