Dictionary | On owning reference books in 2014

On owning reference books in 2014


David Foster Wallace claimed that the dictionary was his favourite book. His own copy of the American Heritage Dictionary had many words circled; denoting favouritism or difficulty, or perhaps intrigue.

He contributed notes to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and in his short story ‘Datum Centurio’[i] wrote his own futuristic dictionary from the year 2096 entitled Leckie & Webster’s Connotationally Gender-Specific Lexicon of Contemporary Usage.[ii]

Zadie Smith writes that “a dictionary was, for Wallace, a universe: every etymological root, every usage note, every obsolete meaning was of interest to him.”[iii] He would browse a dictionary, this ordered list of complete knowledge, in search of a greater comprehension of language.

Sadly, for most of us, the dictionary is dead. I don’t need to tell you why. The answer is sitting there in front of you as you read this. Why leaf laboriously, when you can type and click?

Smith continues: “Look: that language fantasias of this kind are übergeeky and laborious cannot be denied … But what they signify, these stories – that words are worlds, that no language is neutral – is also serious and beautiful.”

This got me thinking of the problem with computer reference tools. Namely, that they operate on a strictly supply and demand basis. That is to say, you have a specific word you need to define or find an alternative for, you ask your computer and it tells you. There is no suggestion that you might scroll through online lists in order to widen your vocabulary; you can just get an answer, right now.

But a dictionary, a proper paper one from the old days, isn’t just a reference tool, it’s a book in its own right.

I confess that I do not own a dictionary. Actually, I do, but it’s in a box in my parents’ garage along with the rest of the stuff I didn’t feel I needed in Australia. I do, however, own two reference books that I love; they are, in no particular order, Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus and the Guardian Style Guide. I’d like to pay tribute to them here.

The Flavour Thesaurus is not just a book, but a feat of culinary passion. As the title suggests, it breaks foods down into flavour groups[iv] and then offers appropriate pairings for each group, along with advice on how and why they work. The accompanying descriptions provide historical and cultural roots, recipe ideas and amusing commentary.

She is unimpressed by bland hunter’s stew; “an English recipe from the 1950s, taught to nice girls by their mothers in the hope they’d bag the sort of chap who’d be neither too unadventurous nor too suspiciously cosmopolitan to object to a lightly herbed slop of chicken in tomato sauce.” And warns us that “a drawback of chicken Kiev is having to dodge the geyser of molten garlic butter as it arcs over your shoulder.”

Segnit is full of ideas for healthier living; “Freshly grated nutmeg puts the ohh into aubergine. There should be a global chain selling paper cones of nutmeggy fried aubergine slices (Oh-bergine™. I’m rich!)” But knows you probably won’t stick to them; “Try [apple and blueberries] in a tart or crumble – that one that you make with the blueberries you bought to eat instead of chocolate-covered peanuts but which now sit in your fridge as baggy as your good intentions.”

And never shy of a touch of whimsy; “In France you’ll find an almond and rose syrup called Orgeat that tastes like Amaretto getting ready for a date.” In short, it’s a must-read for all food enthusiasts and genuinely useful if you’re stuck for dinner ideas.

The Guardian Style Guide is a fantastic online resource for a quick fix, but the hardback version will truly expand your horizons. It has the answers to all of your grammar and spelling questions but can also teach you things you never knew you didn’t know.

For example, a recent flick through the Ps taught me that I’ve been using too many words (“pretext: by it’s nature false, so while you may think that Tony Blair went to war on a pretext, it is tautologous to say he did so on a false one”) that I don’t know what prodigal means (“prodigal: means wasteful or extravagant, not a returned wanderer; the confusion arises from the biblical parable of the prodigal son”) and that the Guardian almost definitely disapproves of some of the words I use (“proactive: hideous jargon word – do not use with a hyphen. Or without one”).

The definitions can be instructional, anecdotal or pure humour, but the tone remains one of unapologetic superiority. Entries are concise (“afterlife, aftermath: no hyphens”) withering (“fat cats: should be used sparingly, even if writing about overweight moggies”) and downright witticism (“cannabis: people smoke cannabis rather than ‘experiment’ with it, despite what politicians and young members of the royal family might claim”).

I could go on and on with examples, but I won’t. You should buy it. Instead I will end, as is appropriate to this paean to intellectualism, with an entry on Meat Loaf:

Meat Loaf sings; meatloaf doesn’t sing – to quote ‘the Loaf’ himself: ‘When I see my name spelt with one word, I want to slap and choke people. If you do that, you got to be a moron. It’s on every poster, every album and every ticket as two words. If you spell it as one, you’re an idiot. Bottom line.’”

You see? Your horizons are expanding already.


Full disclosure: A list of the words I looked up using Not A Dictionary whilst writing this post:
Connotationally – Microsoft Word threw up a squiggly red line under this one. It turns out to not be a word, but if it’s good enough for DFW, it’s good enough for me.
Etymological – I always thought this referred to ‘the history of words’, I double-checked and it does.
Laboriously – Another squiggly red line. I was spelling it ‘labouriously’ and unsure whether I was wrong or my Word dictionary is still set to American. It was both.
Übergeeky – Available only in the Urban Dictionary, but again, if good enough for Zadie etc.
Paean – I wanted to check that it meant what I thought it did. It did.
Squiggly – How embarrassing. I was spelling it ‘squiggely’.

[i] Taken from the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
[ii] The story is just an extract from the Ds, covering the contextual, historical and etymological roots of the word ‘date’. More information here.
[iii] From ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace’ in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2009)
[iv] There are sixteen groups in total, including: Roasted, Earthy, Marine, Spicy, Woodland and Floral Fruity.

Image credit: Digital Journal 

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