When I teach writing to young students, one of the first things I tell them is that I keep a dictionary by my side when I read. I do this for one simple and obvious reason: so I can look up the meaning of words I don’t know.
The surprise in their eyes is priceless. At first, they can’t believe it’s true. There are those among them who are convinced that adults are familiar with every word in the English language. I guess some folks are, but I assure them the average human – even a well-read one – is not.
I explain that this habit of mine goes beyond the necessity of understanding what I’m reading. I happen to enjoy learning a new word or reacquainting myself with an old one I haven’t used in a while. Keeps the mind supple. It also gives me the happy glow you get after a good meal. I want my students to get excited about it, too, so they’ll see the looking up of words as a means to broadening their horizons. That’s why I tell them how much I love dictionaries, which are all over our house – on bookshelves and the table next to my bed, even near the cookbooks in the kitchen. They are my constant companions because reading is something I do in all sorts of places.
I’m aware that some of the dictionaries in my stash are outdated, like the Webster’s I bought in college and the American Heritage edition I acquired for my last full-time job. That’s why I got myself a new one last year. It’s heavy and lovely and a number of the definitions have tiny pictures accompanying them. I keep it on the coffee table in the living room. But I haven’t recycled any of the old ones. I can’t seem to let them go. I like to suggest to my students that they treat themselves to a nice one, too.
Yes, I say to them, “I know the standard English dictionary is available online.” I also know that as vast as it is, it takes up no room that way, which would free up our coffee table for other things, like coffee cups. When I must, I avail myself of the resource, like when I’m reading in a doctor’s waiting room. It would be impractical to carry a dictionary with me wherever I go.
But the cyber edition is just a means to an end, while a paper dictionary has endless potential for serendipity. Only within its pages can you stumble upon the word chantey (a sailor’s song, sung while working) out of the corner of your eye while looking for the meaning of chapman (chiefly British usage, a peddler). It’s delightful when this happens. I could get lost in the Cs alone.
Mostly, I love that dictionaries allow us to hold the diversity of our language in our hands, laying the vast quantity of words out before us, like a Viennese table with a million plus treats to choose from. I share this thought with my students, hoping they’ll catch my enthusiasm. I promise them that growing the number of words in their vocabulary gives them enormous power to frame their world (Which way do I turn to save the universe?), not only the practical ability to share their specific feelings about their new baby nephew (I am besotted with you.) and homework (I’d like to defenestrate my textbook, but won’t.).
Besides, there’s always a new word to learn – slang or technical jargon, words borne of world events and cultural watershed moments. I tell them it’s good to keep abreast of change. We humans are forever creating language, helping it to evolve and grow. It’s kind of a superpower, really. I suggest that they read more about that in Andrew Clements’ chapter book Frindle. I read it with my boys when they were young and am grateful I did. It’s still one of my favorite stories from their childhood.
When they’ve finished Frindle, I encourage them to open a dictionary – not in their servers, but in their hands – at home, in the library, or at school. Smell the ink on the page. Then, I tell, them, behold the low-lying fruit and grasp at all the delicious words they can.