Saturday, December 10, 2011

For the love of a dictionary

When I was a child, we had a red American Heritage Dictionary that laid on its back in the bookshelf, and it was awesome. Whenever I'd be talking to my mother and asked what a word meant, she'd say "Go look it up!", so I ended up looking up words on a regular basis. What I loved about that dictionary was that it had small black and white pictures for some entries, catching my eye and enticing me to learn additional words beyond what I was actually looking up.

After I graduated high school and went to college, I bought the 3rd edition of the AHD for myself. It was dark blue and lovely. I still treasure it. I treasured it so much when I first got it that I used rub-on letters to put my name on the inside cover. The font is Goudy Old Style (still one of my favorites). It is in all lowercase because I couldn't afford to buy the sheet of capitals.

I recently bought an ipad, at least partly because there is an app for the AHD (the 5th edition, which just came out last month). It is my most expensive app. The app alone is $24.99, or you can buy the book and get the app for free. Since the book was just twelve dollars more, I went ahead and bought it. I recently found my old rub-on letters and I will use them to put my daughter's name in the front, and give it to her for Christmas. It doesn't have a dust jacket, it just has a partial pseudo-dust-jacket, but written on it is the line "You are your words. Make the most of them." I really believe that. Hopefully it will serve my daughter well.

Once I dated a terrible man who criticized me for my vocabulary. He wanted me to dumb it down. One of the many signs that I shouldn't have been with him. I'm not crazy with the words I use in normal everyday conversation - I use the fancy ones sparingly. More often I go for nuance and fitting like a puzzle piece when I go to the effort to pick a specific interesting word. It's an art form, really. But trust me, most of the time I am super casual about my diction. Anyway, I sound like he gave me a complex about it. The guy wasn't and isn't worth the angst though. What a waste of time that was.

I really like the app, it is well-designed. It has some really nice features, such as a wildcard search. You can use * for an indeterminate number of letters, or ? to represent each wildcard letter. It also will let you turn on a setting to have whatever word you have in the clipboard automatically show up in the search bar, which is handy when you switch from reading something in another app to looking up a word. And I really like being able to bookmark words, and see my lookup history.

Also one of my absolute favorite things about it is the Indo-European Roots appendix. I am not sure why, but I love digging down to the bare metal as it were, to see the deepest known roots of words, and a sample of various descendants. It really links up sections of the universe of meaning and words for me. It's beautiful.

In many ways the app is better than the book, I think. For one thing, I can copy and paste from it. I'm not a fan of the cloth cover, however. I wish it was smooth instead of like cheap canvas. It wouldn't be so bad if there was a full dust jacket for it, though.

I was reading through some of the introductory material earlier (which is where I found Steven Pinker's essay on usage, below), and in the Pronunciation Key I found two errors. I have mixed feelings about finding the errors. A sort of glee, certainly, but also pain. I get like this sometimes - amazed and delighted at my own cleverness, and at the same time so utterly disappointed that major publications (and a dictionary at that!) would have such errors, so easy to spot in just a simple read-through that takes me a handful of minutes.

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