I have a thing for dictionaries. I really love them. In fact, I have a collection of old dictionaries and even use them in my art. Some years ago I created a shaman jacket that is covered with images from an old dictionary carefully glued to an old down jacket like feathers with alizarin crimson paint, like blood dried scabs. (Do not be distracted by the Mexican hat hanging on the wall behind it.)
My first job out of college was working for World Book Encyclopedia where my first assignment was to read the entire dictionary marking where I thought we ought to illustrate a word or group of words. Every day I would come into work, kick my feet up onto my drawing table, set my coffee down, and read columns and columns of words. World Book had some kind of agreement with Thorndike Barnhardt where they “owned” the definitions and we would illustrate and play with the layout and font. It would be marketed under World Book’s moniker. It was while doing this job that I learned that every dictionary company actually has at least one and usually more fake words and definitions in their dictionary. So, when a new dictionary is published, each company can determine whether their words and definitions have been stolen or not and then sue when appropriate.
I was pretty shocked at some of the definitions at the time. Afterall, I thought dictionaries were compiled and written by experts and maybe some of them are. But at the time Barnhardt (a descendent no doubt) and his son were in charge of writing all definitions. (They also had a secretary.) Their definition of cultural revolution (no capitals) was something like “bands of denunciatory street gangs standing on corners, waving red flags.” (This was in the seventies.) We were able, with no small effort, to get Barnhardt to be a bit more objective in his rhetoric.
As a member of the art department, we didn’t personally illustrate the images we all agreed on, but came up with the ideas that hired illustrators completed. For anachronism, one of my suggestions was to show a picture of Michaelangelo’s Moses holding a typewriter with the Ten Commandments coming out. I was told that this would outrage the religious right market share (even then) so we settled on one of my tamer ideas—Paul Revere riding a motorcycle shouting “The British are coming. The British are coming.”
Every day while reading the columns of words I would post my favorite ones like strabismic or abacinate (to blind someone by placing a red-hot copper kettle near their eyes). Each and every day I would playfully use these words and my colleagues learned to come by my cubicle and check out the new vocabulary whenever they could. All of my friends suffered from my new found erudition.
This is all to say that it is sometimes frustrating for me to work with students for whom words do not hold the same magic, promise, liveliness or possibilities. In fact, it seems that their ability to understand words is quite limited which in turn is an obstacle in crawling beneath the layers of text that they read. A bright student just the other day asked me what a particular word meant. She stumbled over its pronunciation, “drosy?”
“Drowsy?” I asked.
I’m no genius and god knows I need to continually strengthen my ability to communicate clearly and articulately. But the ability of the right word to capture specificity or nuance is perhaps a thrill for the few (English teachers and writers, maybe). To encourage my students, perhaps I ought to threaten them with abacination.