I can’t remember how old I was when I first learned the words denotation (the definition of a word) and connotation (the suggestion of a word). But I remember feeling a little betrayed by the idea that there was a whole layer of language that couldn’t quite be conveyed by a dictionary. Like most kids, I loved learning, but thought it was something that I would end up doing someday. At a certain age, I assumed, I would need to know everything. Understanding the nuances of the language seemed to be an obstacle to this goal.
It was only after I graduated from college, and subsequently realized that there is no such thing as global knowledge, that I was able to read for fun. A sense of curiosity, rather than desperate completeness, guided me. I began to see dictionaries, however inaccurate they were, as field guides to the life of the language. Searching for words I encountered in nature sounded less like a failure than an admission that there are many things I don’t know and an opportunity to find out how many.
I appreciate my 1954 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, which I picked up on the street near my Brooklyn apartment a few years ago. Its 3,000 pages (Indian paper, marbled front edge) are punctuated by a thumb index. I keep it open, solitary on a table, like dictionaries are usually found in libraries. I often consult it at Scrabble parties or reading midday magazines. I mostly read novels at night, in bed, so when I come across unfamiliar words, I read the bottom of the page, then look for words in spurts. When I begin to encounter these words, newly resplendent in my pattern-seeking mind, in articles, podcasts, other books, and even casual conversations, the linguistic universe seems to shrink to the size of a small town. . Dictionaries awaken my senses, almost like certain psychotropic substances: they direct my attention outwards, in a conversation with language. They make me wonder what other things I’m blind to because I haven’t learned to notice them yet. Recently spotted specimens include planetary, “a mechanical model, generally of clockwork, designed to represent the movements of the earth and the moon (and sometimes also the planets) around the sun”. The Oxford English Dictionary also tells me that the word comes from the fourth Earl of Orrery, for whom a copy of the first machine was made, circa 1700. Useful? Obviously not. Satisfactory? Deeply.
With dictionaries, unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why leave them to guesswork?
Wikipedia and Google answer questions with more questions, opening pages of information you never asked for. But a dictionary builds on common knowledge, using simple words to explain more complex words. Using one is like forcefully opening an oyster rather than falling down a rabbit hole. Unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why leave them to guesswork? Why not consult a dictionary and feel the instant gratification of associating a context with a definition? Dictionaries reward you for your attention, both to the things you consume and your own curiosity. They are a portal to the kind of irrational, childish urge to simply know the things I had before I learned have become an assignment rather than a game. I am mostly amused by words that absolutely do not mean what I thought they meant. As Cygnet. Which has nothing to do with rings or stationery. (It’s a young swan.)
There are of course many types of dictionaries. The way they have proliferated over time is a reminder of how futile it is to approach language as something that can be fully understood and contained. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, defined a paltry 40,000 words. The original OED, proposed by the Philological Society of London in 1857 and completed over 70 years later, contained over 400,000 entries. The Merriam-Webster universe is a direct descendant of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. Compiled by Webster alone for over 20 years, it contained 70,000 words, of which nearly a fifth had never been defined before. Webster, who corresponded with founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, viewed lexicography as an act of patriotism. He believed that the establishment of American standards of spelling and definition was necessary to solidify the cultural identity of the young nation as distinct from that of England.
Perhaps because of Webster’s enthusiasm for rules, dictionaries have long had an unfair reputation as arbiter of language, as tools used to limit rather broaden your range of expression. But dictionaries don’t create the language, people do. To take dilettante: The superficial connotation of the word is a modern invention. Noah Webster’s aforementioned American dictionary defines him as “one who enjoys promoting science or the fine arts.” OED cites its link with the Latin verb delight, meaning “to please or to please”. Being a dilettante once meant that love and curiosity motivated your interest in a particular discipline. For me, dictionaries are a portal to this kind of uncalculated knowledge research. They remind me that when it comes to learning, it is just as important to satisfy your curiosity as it is to pay attention. After all, isn’t curiosity really just another form of attention? Following your curiosity instead of pushing it away is one of the best ways I know of to feel connected to more than what’s right in front of you.
Rachel del Valle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ and Real Life Magazine.