Monday, June 18, 2012

Grandma Cooney & The Dictionary

 The other day I was thinking about my Grandmother Cooney and the dictionary. I was about 14 years old when Grandma and I were visiting another family relative, and remember Grandma, who loved to read, saying  to me, “Whenever staying at someone’s home, and I can’t find a book to my liking, I pick up the dictionary to read through it.”   

I can vividly picture Grandma taking the dictionary from my uncle’s shelf, walking to the small sofa in the family room and randomly opening to the letter R and reading aloud the meaning of   ren-i-tent, Rennes, re-port-age.  Grandma and the dictionary had a lot in common – both were a well spring of information. Grandma was a lover of words, and keen on learning something new every day, a trait she passed on to her grandchildren.

I must confess, while I wasn’t totally engrossed with reading the dictionary then, today I have a great respect and cherish everything the dictionary offers, and like my grandmother, enjoy reading through the pages to learn new words.  In fact, I own several editions, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, The Random House Dictionary, The Readers Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, Webster’s Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary, The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, The Dictionary of Difficult Words, Dictionary of Thought, and Biblical Dictionary.  Most recently, I have added a dictionary app to my iPad, and particularly enjoy reading ‘Word of the Day’.  Today, agnate (ag-neyt): a relative whose connection is traceable exclusively through males.  A word I was previously unfamiliar with. My grandmother would be proud – I learned something new today.

The first recorded dictionary dates back to Sumerian times, and the Akkadain Empire (2300 B.C.)  where cuneiform tablets with bilingual wordlists were discovered in Ebla (modern Syria). There are early Arabic dictionaries, and European dictionaries, but it wasn’t until Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1775) that a faithful, dependable dictionary was produced.  Previous dictionaries were arranged by topic, which meant all plants, all birds, etc.  would be grouped together. Johnson’s dictionary was arranged alphabetically, and is considered the first modern dictionary. It remained the standard for over 150 years.

In 1806, an American lexicographer, textbook pioneer and English spelling reformer named Noah Webster (1758 – 1843) published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It took him 27 years to complete. According to Wikipedia, Webster believed that English spelling rules  were unnecessarily complex, so his dictionary introduced  American English spellings ,replacing ‘colour’ with ‘color’, ‘wagon’ for ‘waggon’ and  ‘center’ instead of ‘centre’.  Webster sometimes called the ‘Father of American scholarship and education was outspoken in favor of the new constitution. His name, today remains synonymous with ‘dictionary’ – by its own definition  a reference book containing an explanatory alphabetical list of words, as  A book listing  a comprehensive  or restricted  selection of the words of language, identifying  usually the phonetic, grammatical , and semantic value of each word  with etymology, citations , and usage guidance, and other formations.

According to some scholar’s,  writers and poets owe a lot to Webster’s Dictionary citing many have used the dictionary, often drawing upon his (Webster’s) lexicography in order to express their word play.

As a writer, I would be lost without the dictionary, not only in searching a definition of a particular word, but for expanding my vocabulary, and description for a certain character, place or thing.   I encourage all writers to keep a dictionary nearby,  and for all readers to   follow my grandmother's  example, if no other book to your liking,  pick up the dictionary  for the fun of  reading  through it!

 ** For more about Noah Webster visit


Jennifer Rova said...

Kathy, I can relate to your grandmother. When bored or out of reading material, I used to read the encyclopedia. My family thought I was a bit strange. Now I go to my computer and play games instead which is much less enlightening!I need to go back to encyclopedia-surfing. Thanks for a good post.

Patty said...

Kath, you made me think about my old Jeep and how I used to keep a dictionary in it to browse thru when I got stuck in traffic. Well, now you've prompted me, with this article, to put another in my new vehicle! What a great way to spend "wasted " time....thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! You make life more interesting in what you write. I feel I have learned something new or it brings back something I have forgotten. I keep a small pocket dictionary with me never thinking about the history behind it. Now each time I open it, I will. I hope I can do for my grandchildren what your Grandmother did for hers. What an awesome woman! This was a great posting!!!!


elizabethbrinton said...

In high school, we were expected to have our pocket Oxford dictionary with us at all times. I had a classmate who used to read hers during lunch, just to improve her vocabulary. It is a great prompt, when writing on any topic, to first look up the meaning of the word. Thanks for the reminder.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I adore dictionaries. I have a well-thumbed Merriam-Webster on my desk and a two-volume Funk & Wagnalls on the shelf. Alas, both dictionaries are too large and heavy to carry around. Looks like I might need to invest in one that I can have with me at all times. On my Kindle maybe?