COLM O'REGAN: I think dictionaries don’t get the kudos they deserve

There’s something you should know, if this thing between us is going to get more serious.

I’m mad about dictionaries. I think it I get it from my father. Every so often, he would collapse the newspaper, and say “I must look up the meaning of that word now”, and then go off down to the sitting room and get out the dictionary. He’d stand there searching through it, but not for long. Repeated trips to the dictionary had made him adept at getting close to the word on first opening.

After a while he streamlined the process when he looped a string down the spine of the book thus allowing it to be pulled out more quickly. It knackered the spine a bit, but the dictionary, the one good thing that we ever got out of a Reader’s Digest offer, could take it.

It’s also a measure of the place the dictionary had in the house, that important bits of paper — dockets for layers mash, clippings from newspapers about the Inniscarra dam, photos from 70 years ago, found their way into the protective confines of the dictionary — in between aardvark and abacus or Zen and zoomorphic.

We have a dictionary in our house but it’s not battered like that. A lot of word-looking-up takes place online which is good because of the breadth of sources you can find but bad because of the time involved. Whereas my father would be finished looking up a word within a minute, I’m stuck an hour later having chased the word back along various etymologies, getting lost on Wikipedia before emerging blinking into the sunlight, carrying the definition of the word, but also an interesting theory on how aliens may have drawn the Nazca lines. And sometimes I emerge with a new dictionary.

Because the house is already full of everyone’s stuff, most of these dictionaries are in electronic form, although if I had my way they’d be leatherbound with yellowing pages.

I think dictionaries don’t get the kudos they deserve. Our main dealings with them may have been in school when were desperately hoping there’d be enough context in them to write practically all of our letter in French to a penpal inviting them to stay on our uncle’s farm.

Perhaps we think of them as static. Yes every year there is a media storm about ten new abominations of words, like ‘amazeballs’ or ‘soz’, that are being codified, but less about the words that have to make way. And it’s in the old dictionaries you’ll find the old words. My latest acquisition from the internet is the gloriously titled “A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, etc. with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, etc.”

It’s in here you’ll find out that a maggott was a “whimsical Fellow, full of strange Fancies and Caprichios”, so the request to not be acting the maggot probably comes from that, rather than telling you to stop writhing in rotten flesh.

Or what about this for a profession? Bawdy-baskets — “the Twenty-Third Rank of Canters with Pints Tape Obscene Books etc. to sell but live more by stealing.”

Put that on LinkedIn! I bet you’d be endorsed by more people than vouched for your event management or digital marketing skills.

These old dictionaries are like little archaeological digs where you can piece together the past without being rushed by a fella with a digger anxious to build the bypass. So put a string in your spine. Happy defining!


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