Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Adventures with Words

I was wandering through Borders today, and I stumbled upon Defining the World, about the life journey Dr. Samuel Johnson took while penning English's most influential dictionary for over a hundred years, until the Oxford Dictionary came along.

I could only breeze through it while standing there (no time, no book-buying money left) but, wow! What a book! Someday, I'm going to buy it. It's a lively, well-written biography of the man who struggled to create a dictionary in the space of a decade, all by himself. (He originally thought he could do it in four years, LOL.)

It brought me back to this dictionary that was in this library that I spent a lot of time at, growing up. It was huge and heavy, and it was permanently installed on a pedestal. I used to stand there for hours!

What I loved about it, is that it would give lengthy definitions, sometimes with sample sentences, and then list antonyms and synonyms. The synonyms would be what peeked my curiosity. If so many words meant the same thing, how were they different?

So would begin my journey. Looking up one word could take me an hour. I'd look up the words in the definition, follow the trail of words in that definition. I'd look up the antonyms and the synonyms and read the sample sentences. Sometimes, by the time I finished my journey, I'd forget the original word!

But what fascinated me, and still does, is when there are words that mean the same thing. I love to discover the shades of gray, the small differences between the two words that supposedly mean the same thing.

The dictionary is a bit like a maze, when you take a journey through it like that. When I was growing up, I insisted on reading everything. I read the Bible three times (because, if people wanted me to believe this stuff, I figured I better read it) and I used to sit with my dictionary and explore for hours.

I remember several of my English teachers assigned us a list of words every week. We'd have to copy the definition from the dictionary and then write it in a sentence of our own.

But what if, instead of a list of ten words, they assigned three words? Three words, almost the same, and sent us off to figure out how they're different?

Now that would help young people learn to love words. Fascinating stuff, that dictionary!

4 bonus scribbles:

StarvingWriteNow 1/03/2007 06:43:00 AM  

I can remember that pedestal dictionary from my school library too. I can also remember being totally impressed when I discovered my college library had a copy of the Oxford dictionary--all 13 or so volumes of it.

spyscribbler 1/03/2007 07:02:00 AM  

Oh! Be still my heart!!!

writtenwyrdd 1/04/2007 06:31:00 PM  

I almost went for a Masters in Etymology because I, too, am fascinated by words. I really enjoy the history of words and how their meaning has changed. I've always wanted to buy the unabridged, full sized print version of the OED because it has so much information in it. Alas, I don't have an entire bookshelf to devote to the darned thing!

spyscribbler 1/04/2007 07:09:00 PM  

Oh, wow. They have Master's Degrees for that?

Boy, what I would do to get my hands on one of those!