Odyssey Online

Short Essay Upon Dictionaries

September 6, 2010 · No Comments

…following up on Oxford University Press’ wondering a’loud about whether they would only publish an online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the New York Times believes this might be a better manifestation of the OED as a living breathing chronicle of the English language, and one can certainly see the point.  One can also see, from where I’m sitting, two dictionaries on lecterns in the ODY Reference Area.  They are both open, both, at this moment, open to the west like sunflowers tracking late afternoon sun, and neither is being used. In the real world wherein these dictionaries dwell, books and online publications lead complementary existences, (read the Internet’s progenitor, JCR Licklider), but one can’t help but worry that with the news of an online only OED they’ll be a collective “that’s that” for print dictionaries.  Perhaps with the OED awash on the Internet, the answer is to untether the dictionaries from “reference and let them circulate–let anyone who wants them check them out and take them hither, tither, to a dorm room desk yon.

An idea that suggests using a print dictionary is now like using a mule and plow to turn the soil for the back yard tomato patch, so who uses dictionaries—who sees a print dictionary as a living breathing thing?  I suspect that even the most ardent bibliophile doesn’t think of a dictionary as breathing, since books are, after all, completed objects, gardens harvested.  Their existence is more weathering the reading elements than walking upright, and their fate, whether destined for  pristine care on a regularly dusted bookshelf, or discarded after one read on a Gray Hound bus is entirely chance and favor in the eye of the beholder.  Long lived books are those vegetables that are canned for the this-and-that in the root cellar, to be consumed with joy or botulism, and celebrated archaic.  While not everyone cans vegetables, and you don’t save diamonds-on-the-dollar by doing so, don’t we admire the self-reliant canner?  Might it be that the writer and their dictionary take their place in the living breathing archetype of self-reliance and propels our nation both left and right?  Might for off-the-gridders and bankers alike might a flip of the dictionary be a way to stick it to the man?

Late in his life John Updike published a lovely short essay in the New York Times titled “Books Unbound Life Unraveled” about what books are and do, including Books as Furniture:

Shelved rows of books warm and brighten the starkest room, and scattered single volumes
reveal mental processes in progress, books in the act of consumption, abandoned but readily
resumable…

Which could be the fate of the lectern dictionaries. They look great:  the shelved books upturned into one part lily one part sunflower one part sketch pad (these are dictionaries with pen and ink fingernail illustrations).  Ultimately print dictionaries utility will ungulate upon the urgent umbrage traded over reading and writing online and whether one is really the current a national of readers will sail.   I would like to think that having a print dictionary to consult within a library is one small opportunity to choose one’s word carefully. How many times does one writing at the word processor mean writing  just to make the squiggly red or blue lines go away?  Rather than writing to think about words, how many times at the processing keyboard does one write to rearrange words? Unplug spell and grammar  checkers—hahaha not on my watch, but watch what you do with a dictionary and like Licklider you may find a moment or two when walking to a lectern to consider a word and all those one wouldn’t otherwise meet but for flipping through a dictionary make a connection, one into the etymological guts of English (which is I think where we started).  Take a word out of the dictionary like a book of the shelf for those moments of eating it raw, before working online…

Categories: Books · Essay on Bibliography · Licklider's Legacy