Thursday, March 13, 2008

Wunderkammer 6: Dictionaries

Wunderkammer: a series celebrating the almost lost


When I first met my Best Beloved, he'd just spent a large sum of money buying a dictionary. All 20 volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, to be precise. They take up two full shelves of our home office bookcase, and look fantastic. And that's what they do most of the time, sit there and look fantastic. Of course, when Bernice Balconey drops in for a glass or three of wine and she and he start haggling over obscure points of grammar and the difference between 'miniscule' and 'minuscule' (thank you, Jonathon and Pav), the M volume is run for, and lovingly stroked as it is gazed at. I, on the other hand, am usually running for a nice novel to sink into as they sink deeper into Baloney.

I, too, have a beloved dictionary, but it is only the size of a small house brick, a little hardback Pocket Oxford Dictionary that I've carted through the years, through endless house moves and seemingly unceasing study. It has my name written in the front in my high-school hand. It's always within arms reach if I'm working at home, and it's married to my equally battered paperback Roget's Thesaurus.

So tell me, do you still use a hard-copy dictionary? Or do you own the CD-roms of some reputable dictionary publishing house? Or are you a subscriber to something similar? Or do you just use the plethora of free on-line dictionaries? Or do you just rely on the spell-checker built into whichever program you're using at the time? Or do you not care at all, as long as ur grlfrd ns wt ur tlkg abt?

When I'm away from my married couple, I'll go on-line for my spelling requirements, but I'm blessed with an ability to sense if something's not spelled correctly, probably because I read a lot. In fact, most of the times I misspell things, it's because I haven't taken the time to properly re-read whatever I've written. Like blog posts/comments: dash them down, and hit send. Then say 'Doh'!

The sense of nostalgia I feel about printed dictionaries is not a sense of their impending obsolescence (to the contrary! They are becoming more collectible with every on-line year), but about the way looking through a dictionary leads you to other words, and other worlds.

Many are the times I've gone to look up a word, and become distracted by other words near by, and before I know it, I'm turning the page, or writing down something that ends up being something quite different after a bit of thinking, like a page of an artist's book.

This is akin to the way library catalogues are now virtual, and looking up a book tends to take you straight to that book, and nowhere else. My university library catalogue has a function that shows you the books on either side of the one you're seeking, but it's just not the same as standing at the shelf, running your finger along the other book spines, and happening upon the perfect book that you never knew existed.

You can still do this, of course, by stopping occasionally as you walk through the library shelves, rather than just grabbing the book you need and running out again. You can also go to bed and browse through the dictionary to learn a new word every day, as well. I just thought I'd point that out, in case anyone has forgotten. But I know I'm writing this for an audience of dictionary lovers, am I not? SHARE.

Before I stop, here's a short list of weird and wonderful dictionary-type thingies in no particular order:

Urban Dictionary
The Visual Dictionary
A dictionary of one-letter words
The Superhero Dictionary
Language Log
The Apostrophe Protection Society
sex-lexis, the dictionary of sexual terms
a very long list of on-line dictionaries

[cross-posted at Sarsaparilla]


Mousicles said...

I have a two volume Oxford that I specified as a birthday present many years ago. I requested a big Atlas for the following christmas.

These books don't come off the shelf very often but when they do I get lost in them. You can never look up just one word or look at a single map.

cinnamon girl said...

We have many dictionaries, from GIANT Maquaries to tiny Oxfords. We use them a LOT, and peruse them for fun. One of my old favourites is Brewer's dictionary of phrase and fable.
We only occasionally use an online one. A good one is the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Poppy Letterpress said...

My family always had the two shelves of dictionary volumes, which I would spend hours flipping through as a teenager. I've only just realised now that I don't own a single hardcopy dictionary as an adult. Quite sad, isn't it? It feels cheap to check a word on an online dictionary.

I do rather crave a huge atlas though. Maps are so fascinating, and I could spend hours looking through an atlas now.

Mummy/Crit said...

I have a lovely Mac Dic, 2nd ed '92 reprint. It lives on the same shelf in the kitchen as the cookbooks for easy reference. Mainly used for playing Scrabble, but also for other reference purposes. i don't use an online dic (unless you count the one in Scrabulous...;-)

Anonymous said...

I do most of my uplooking using dictionaries that live on my hard drive: the New Oxford American Dictionary, which is the one that ships with OS X (in the States, at least), and Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate, Third International, and thesaurus (purchased separately but all accessible through a single lousy interface). If I can't find what I need in one of those, then I turn to the Google. I would love to add an electronic version of the OED to this mix.

worldpeace and a speedboat said...

I have a bunch of old dictionaries and atlases - the more out of date, the better ;)

my favourite mappy thing is a late 40's/early 50's street directory of Sydney. trams! and lots of ads, with 6-digit phone numbers.

my favourite dictionary is my mother's black Oxford, I nicked it when I moved out of home and used it so much I had to buy a second-hand copy so I wouldn't hurt hers any more.

Anonymous said...

I have a gorgeous German-English dictionary that I got at the Lifeline bookfair when it was still at Albert Hall.

It is ancient - they still have Fs instead of Ss, but it is really nice.

Sadly I never use it at all, but I can't get rid of it either - what would I do with it??


Dean said...

I have a dict/thes Macquarie set within reach at work which gets used for idle word-thinkin' moments as well as actual work.

At home I'm lazy and fall back on WordWeb, a little system tray utility that I found in the mid-90s as it was the only one that would let you add special terminology to the dictionary. I used it as a study aid.

I'd really like to have twin sets of Oxford Australians at home & work. Maybe I should put it on my santa list.

BwcaBrownie said...

today I finally got to The State Library of Victoria to see the books exhibition.
It looked beautiful and the books were thrilling.
peace and love

Anonymous said...

I too love old fashioned paper dictionaries. I have a concise Maquarie, an illustrated Macquarie (well, Izzy's really), a pocket Oxford, and my favorite (inherited from deceased husband wonderfully musty smelling 1932 edition Shorter Oxford (that's the two volume one, in case you didn't know). I drool lustily over the giant OED, but unlike your BB, will probably never own one.

I do have to disagree with you one point re electronic dictionaries - since perhaps you've never discovered the truly wonderful OED online? Unfortunately, it is subscriber based, but fortunately we priviliged few (or not so few really) can access it via the ANU. the etymology and quotes sections are my favorite bits (just like in the paper edition), and yes you randomly can browse thanks to lots of associated words in a column that runs down the page. Check it out.

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