Saturday, January 24, 2009

Familiar References

Any reference to dictionary definition, in a speech or an essay, or even in such ephemera as this, specially anytime a paragraph begins with "as defined in Webster's Ninth Collegiate..." or the like, makes me low. Such is the laziness of writers. That any editor -- for such, I'm told, there are still in the world, though the evidence grows scanty -- should allow such juvenilia to see print frankly amazes. Surely this term-paper stop-gap ought not to be allowed to anyone beyond the age of consent?

And yet, just today, in taking up a new work of American history, from a recognized author and a large and respectable House, there it was: "As defined in Webster's... " And down the book was put.

Can there really be anyone still who does not find in this a sad and sorry sort of cliche, or sign of something worse about the state of reference libraries in a digital age? Webster's indeed.

Tonight, at my desk I find two handsome twins: the Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English and the Oxford Compact Thesaurus, Third Edition, bound in leather, ribbed and gilded, bought used, but published as a "bonus" for one book club or another. This pair replaced the Oxford Pocket Dictionary I kept since college, it's dustjacket finally in tatters, it's pages (shamefully) marked and dog-eared. I retained my copy, circa 1961, of The New Roget's Thesaurus in Dictionary Form, Revised & Greatly Expanded, Thumb-indexed, from Garden City Books, for reasons patriotic and sentimental.

And on the round table I bought in a junk-shop and painted white when I painted my pine bookcases, to better match the then anonymous room into which they had to go, I keep my treasured friends: The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles, Third Edition, Revised with Addenda, 1955 -- revised by the delicious sounding Don, C. T. Onions, C.B.E., F.B.A., -- and the two beautiful volumes of The New Century Dictionary of the English Language, in the edition published in this format for the first time in 1930.

The Oxford Universal has been with me many years, The New Century is comparatively new to me. The former cost me twenty-five dollars, in a Pittsburgh bookshop many years ago and was brought home on a bike, though I can not now imagine how. It measures eight inches by eleven and sits three and a half inches thick. The cloth covers have gone from blue to gray, and show every evidence of being dropped and packed and unpacked and left repeatedly open and askew. The red cloth ribbon, presently marking the page "Orangeado/Orbitosphenoid" to the left, and "Orby/Order" to the right, is from some forgotten Christmas gift, no doubt long since discarded, though the ribbon remains. The New Century in two volumes, is a reheaded stepchild of that greatest American dictionary, the original Century Dictionary, in eight to ten to twelve volumes. Like the Universal Oxford, this edition of The New Century was meant for common folks, like me, who had neither the shelves nor the resources to own the genuine article. And as a common user, and owner of just these, I am content.

To be honest, I use the Compact Oxford most. But the old Universal is kept close and consulted regularly. The beauty of both volumes -- "A -- pocket veto" and "pock-mark -- zymurgy & supplements," -- make actually using The New Century Dictionary, with all that lovely line-illustration, the bold and handsome type, and the beautiful stamped covers, too distracting. At roughly twice the size together of the Universal, at least so far as thickness, though with much larger type and smaller entries, The New Century is neither more nor less practical in shape. But the difference is between dress pumps and workboots. The occasions for for the former are few, and special; a bird's name, as there might be a picture, or a butterfly, as that provides the excuse to examine one of the color plates. I would not willingly part with them for many times the money I paid (twenty dollars for the set.)

I have other, more specialize reference works, from the whimsy of Instant Yiddish to Fowler's, to commonplace books and more scholarly tomes, but my dictionaries, taken together, represent the better part of my self education. My affection for them is true. My reverence of the men and women who made them profound. I would not think of quoting from them, even here.

1 comment:

  1. I converted to the OED years ago when my husband and I were in that delicate flirting stage of dating. He told me I was diabolical. My cheapie Webster's definition was quite different than his OED.