Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Lots of Information
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Specialized Topics
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Passions
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Subcultures
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Time Periods
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Regions
There even are places where English completely disappears. Why, in America, they haven’t used it for years!
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Age & Decade
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: What’s That Word Again?
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Foreign Words in English Usage
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Slang
Tip for Writers
Takeaway for Writers and Readers
I can’t imagine a writer without some tools of the trade, even if those are only a good dictionary and a thesaurus, preferably a good manual of style as well. I share a few of my favorite resources.
There are lots of ways to get inside writers’ heads.
When my interest is piqued, of course I turn to research.
Deborah Tannen has published numerous books that might be of interest to writers.
Somewhere in my public life, I mentioned that I collect dictionaries. I have whole shelves of them, everything from slang to carnival jargon to common usage during the Civil War to books of insults and dirty words. I ordered all six volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English—and then thanked my husband for his birthday present to me.
I was much taken with Ammon Shea’s book, Reading the OED, a memoir of the year he spent reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary.
Writers are readers, by and large, and also word collectors. We tend to fall in love with words. Some writers make a career of writing about words as well as with them.
I can’t imagine a writer without some tools of the trade, even if those are only a good dictionary and a thesaurus, preferably a good manual of style as well.
Most of us have much more than the basics, however. I often set stories in times that are not now. Therefore, in order to get the details needed to enrich the prose and draw the reader into the period, I often rely on bits of dialogue about what something costs, or what’s being eaten or worn.
A few of my favorite references
For the cost of things, I turn first to The Value of a Dollar.
The most recent volume is 1860-2014, and new it costs $155. I first came across this book in the reference section of a library in Clifton Forge, VA, when I was researching my novel Nettie’s Books, which is set 1930-1935. I was delighted to learn that ham was 8¢ a pound back then, and that Sears was selling 25 Hershey’s 5¢ Almond Bars for $1. I wanted that book! The price of a new one was prohibitive, but by dropping back to the previous edition (pictured above), it was very reasonable. Indeed, I just ordered the one that covers 1860-2009 for $7.91 plus shipping.
As you know from other parts of this website, I collect cookbooks. But I also collect food reference books for writing, such as the two pictured here.
Being able to put waffle irons, Kool-Ade, Spam, and Jiffy Biscuit Mix in the right period is highly tempting! Among other things, such references may trigger childhood memories for readers and help draw them in.
In addition, I find it very helpful to have good references for popular culture and slang. In fact, I have several of each. I often write stories set in Appalachia some decades past, when saying an overweight woman wears clothes so tight she looks like ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack can create just the right vivid image of the woman in question as well as giving insight into the speaker. A character saying, “What a hoot!” is clearly older than the one who says, “Whatever.” The two books pictured here are rather specialized ones, but more comprehensive options are readily available both new and used.
I revel in dipping into these and other references even when I’m not researching a particular writing project. Some of my favorites don’t fall into any of the above categories, but they are great stimulants to striving for better, richer language.
I was a reader before I was a writer (weren’t we all?) and for me, these are great reads! Advice to writers: choose research and writing tools you can enjoy.
What are your favorite research books and tools?
Somewhere in my public life, I mentioned that I collect dictionaries. I have whole shelves of them, everything from slang to carnival jargon to common usage during the Civil War to books of insults and dirty words. I ordered all six volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English—and then thanked my husband for his birthday present to me. (Let me hasten to add that I did not buy them new directly from Harvard University Press!)
But there you have it: I am among the legions of wives who, if they want something, must buy it for themselves, and who then graciously announce to their husbands that anything bought in the vicinity of the date (e.g., birthday, anniversary, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc.) is a gift for said occasion.
Aside from the true confession above, the point of this missive is that dictionaries are beautiful, wondrous companions. Even if you aren’t a collector yourself, do browse the dictionaries in your local library. Who knows what gems you might uncover? Besides telling you the acceptable spelling(s) and pronunciation(s) of a word, you learn what part(s) of speech it can be, and something of its historical roots and evolution. And as with so many other things, often one good word leads to another! I was once asked what one book I would want if I were stranded on a desert island and I said, “The complete Oxford English Dictionary, full-size print edition.” Technically, this might not qualify as one book, as it runs to many volumes, but if many volumes were allowed, I might have to switch my answer to the complete Dictionary of American Regional English! It sounds that delicious. I can’t wait to find out!
And while I’m on the subject of books, here’s a tidbit for another post of some sort, sometime. Awhile back I talked a bit about a book titled Why Women Have Sex, Or at least, I started off talking about that, until the conversation drifted. Well, in fairness to the breadth of my followers, let me mention MANTHROPOLOGY: The Science of Why the Modern Male is Not the Man He Used to Be, by Peter McAllister, St. Martin’s Press. This book purports to span continents and centuries creating an in-depth look into the history and science of manliness. From speed and strength to beauty and sex appeal, it examines how man today compares to his masculine ancestors. Surely it would be an informative and entertaining read!