Words, Words, Words

Think for a moment what an odd thing a dictionary is. The best dictionaries provide a definition of every known word in a given language. And what does a dictionary use to define all these words? Why, more words. In this way, a dictionary is absolutely useless unless you already know what a fair number of words in the dictionary already mean. In fact, my dictionary uses “a” when defining the word “a.” Do you see the problem? Dictionaries, it seems to me, would be less cumbersome if they left out certain definitions. For instance, each dictionary could come with a preamble written in second grade English saying, in short, “Look, if you can read this, you don’t need us to define words like big, camp, and bike.  Plus, it’s whole lot simpler to define coquettish than feel.  Just try it sometime.”

As with so many things, I used to dislike learning anything from a book, and this included dictionaries. My preferred method for learning new words was to infer their meanings based on their context. When I encountered a word like lugubrious, I ignored it. If I used that word in a sentence I would be beaten up. In fact, I still don’t like that word. I know it’s Latin, but it feels like a cobbled together name of a comic book Super Villain: Doctor Lugubrious and his League of the Fearfully Punctilious. For the record, I am now devotee of the dictionary.

I’ll tell you what word I do like: sesquipedalian. I like this word because if you know what it means then you are one. That is very tidy. I don’t know if I would have looked it up when I first encountered it, which was in the book, The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester’s book about, of all things, the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Each of that book’s chapters began with a word and its definition – often an unusual word, like sesquipedalian. If you don’t know what it means – look it up. Then you can be a sesquipedalian too.

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