Thursday, 27 January 2011

A dictionary should be a friend

I have described myself as an 'occasional pedant' because sometimes I get annoyed with the way people mis-spell, or use the wrong word. I am also quite fond of good punctuation, which is really not so very hard to learn. Of course, practice makes perfect, and those who largely communicate online, or by text and phone, may see no good reasons to stick to grammatical rules. However, for someone who loves the look of words on paper, who thinks form and comprehension are not outdated, such a rationale is anathema. And even if you write but rarely, there's no harm in owning at least one good dictionary.

For me that one good one has to be the Concise Oxford English Dictionary with its centre section that 'explores the richness of the English language past and present'. And a writer should never be without a Thesaurus to add variety to their outpourings. Remember, too, how language changes, adapts, adds to itself over the years. This means that an out-of-date dictionary is almost as bad as no dictionary at all. In trying to keep abreast I have consequently accumulated several different kinds of wordbooks.

At school everyone seemed to have a tiny Collins Gem at hand for its portability. Then when I was 21, strange girl that I was, I treated myself to Collins National Dictionary. In later years along came a couple of Oxfords, concise and compact, an encyclopaedic Longman's with charts and diagrams, as well as crossword and anagram dictionaries. I found Lemprières Classical, as well as a collection of German, French, Italian and Latin dictionaries, arriving on my shelves as studies and holidays demanded. Also lurking there is a Descriptionary , which describes itself as 'the book for when you know what it is, but not what it's called'. When I won a cash prize during my first year at University it was invested in the weighty Bloomsbury Encarta dictionary. Later, as a history teacher, I was obliged to 'do time' organising Study Skills sessions. Naturally I always encouraged my students to 'look it up' rather than just ask a friend, since any dictionary worth its salt gives etymology or derivation, helping to explain that word's origins. During this time I found Oxford English language guides and the Guardian Stylebook to be useful, but more fun were Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, or why can't anybody spell? (check those three capitalised nouns for yourselves), and Eats, Shoots and Leaves ((remove that comma for a completely different meaning...). Until I began this wordsmith's inventory I hadn't realised just how many lexicons I had! But, just as a mechanic would not hesitate to select the correct tool, so I too need the reassurance of the precise word when I write. And yes, I am a pedant...

Without a doubt the swankiest dictionary I own is the very expensive online version of the OED that was a joint family gift for my 60th birthday. It is an invaluable resource when I am working on 16th century manuscripts. More than that, though, is the way it connects me to generations of users of the English language from its earliest days, reminding me that spelling, sense and meaning must inevitably evolve to fit the lives that language expresses.

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