I once said that if I were stranded on a desert island with only one book, I’d want it to be the Oxford English Dictionary. Given that this is hypothetical, I’d define the entire 20 volumes as one book. Alas, I have only the condensed version at home.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Lots of Information
The joy of big, encyclopedic dictionaries such as the OED and the Dictionary of American Regional English—dictionaries too big to fit in one volume—is that they give you so much information: multiple meanings, pronunciation, origin(s), where and when it was used. They give you archaic words and highly specialized ones. Often they include examples of the usage, past and/or present. Altogether good reads.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Specialized Topics
At the other end of the spectrum are dictionaries that cover very narrow or specialized topics, such as a medical dictionary, or dictionaries devoted to lust, wrath, body parts, or texting.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Passions
There are dictionaries that help one follow one’s passions. Everyone knows about cross-word puzzle dictionaries. Rhyming dictionaries fall into this category as well.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Subcultures
I own several dictionaries acquired for writing authentically about specific subcultures.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Time Periods
Some cover only certain regions of the country or time periods.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Regions
Not all English is created equal. You might remember the line sung by Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady:
There even are places where English completely disappears. Why, in America, they haven’t used it for years!
So it’s no surprise that there are various versions of the Oxford English Dictionary, including the Oxford Dictionary of American English. Given the breadth of the British Empire, it’s no wonder that there are dictionaries such as this one.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Age & Decade
As a writer, some specialized dictionaries are helpful, for example, when writing about children or when wanting to use slang appropriate to the age or year.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: What’s That Word Again?
There are even dictionaries for people who know what they are looking for but don’t know the word for it!
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Foreign Words in English Usage
I enjoy The Browsers Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases. For one thing, it points out words that are in such common use that one forgets they are foreign! Words like operetta and wanderlust.
Reasons I Love Dictionaries: Slang
But my all-time favorites for fun reading are the books of slang. They are full of colorful and often funny usages, and they come in both specialized and generalized forms.
Tip for Writers
Open any dictionary at random, close your eyes, put your finger on a word, and write it down. Repeat 3-5 times. Write a sentence, paragraph, scene, or story that uses all of those words appropriately.
Takeaway for Writers and Readers
Find your perfect dictionary and enjoy a good read!
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.
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!