I want to talk about a personal sore point. Many times over the years I have made disparaging remarks about things other people did not know which I thought were common knowledge. I realize that I really shouldn’t. Especially because I get my own dander up when people are dismissive of any comments I have made about certain deficiencies in my own education which I am well aware of. One specific phenomenon is that there are words that I encountered in various books I read as a child, but it was many years later before I ever heard another human speak them outloud. I had been able to infer the meaning of the word from the context in which it was used. In my head I pronounced it based on what I thought the spelling implied. But sometimes I was wrong about that.
On more than one occasion when I have explained that (and trust me, I feel super embarrassed when I realize I have reverted to the incorrect pronunciation), someone has pointed out that the pronunciation is available in dictionaries. And that just makes me feel even more embarrassed but also more than a bit angry.
I am obsessed with dictionaries. I own more than five bookshelves of various dictionaries, for instance, and a rather large number of unabridged dictionaries. But here’s the thing: that’s me, as an adult pushing sixty who has had the luck to work in the tech industry for decades and make a decent living. I have access to dictionaries now, yes, but I didn’t always. And I am not, by any means, the only kid for which this is true.
I’ve mentioned before that my father worked in the petroleum industry, one consequence of which is that I attending ten different elementary schools in four different states. My dad’s specific job title throughout my elementary years was “roughneck.” The pay wasn’t great. It was a heavy labor job with no union benefits.
In second grade we moved from a town in central Colorado that had a really well-funded public school system to a town in southwest Nebraska which had a less advanced school system. The first day I got to go to the school library I saw that they had a large unabridged dictionary on a pedestal that was too tall for me to reach it. When I tried to get to it, the librarian stopped me and explained that only kids fourth grade and up were allowed to use that dictionary, because it was printed on very delicate paper that us clumsy second-graders would surely tear if we tried to use it.
I was so incensed that I wasn’t allowed to use the dictionary in the library, that I complained about it for many days after to anyone who would listen. My Sunday School teacher was so moved by my righteous outrage that she found the dictionary pictured up above. When she brought it to me, the spine was gone, but all the pages were there. She told me that this way I would have my own dictionary.
Mom helped me patch the broken spine with masking tape. The dictionary was not as thorough as the unabridged dictionary at the library. There are just a lot fewer words in that dictionary than the other. Also, most words had one simple definition, which means that for some words a lot of the less common meanings of words just weren’t included. Don’t get me wrong, I was ecstatic to have a dictionary of my own. Unfortunately, many of the times I needed to consult it (when I found a word in something I was reading where I couldn’t deduce the meaning from context) the word I was curious about wasn’t in the book.
A bit over a year (and three towns) later, Mom decided to get her GED. I’ve mentioned before that my parents were only 16 years old when they married. Mom dropped out of school after her junior year, because she was pregnant by then. Anyway, for the GED classes she was taking she needed a dictionary, and she decided that she should have one of her own, rather than swiping her son’s, so she bought that dictionary. For the next many years there were two dictionaries in the house. The one Mom bought wasn’t much better than the one I owned. But sometimes when a word wasn’t in one, it was in the other, so that was an improvement.
I didn’t get access to an unabridged dictionary until the second half of fourth grade. But even then, it was only when I could go to school library. The town we lived in for the next couple of years did not have a public library. So the school library was the only option.
And I know that there are many, many kids who had less access to those sorts of educational resources than I had. And on some level it doesn’t matter that many of us got better access when we are older, some things we learn as kids will occasionally surface when we get older.
So, sometimes our childhood deficiencies continue to bite us in the butt for decades later.
Back to the two dictionaries pictured above. Many years after getting that first dictionary, I carefully removed the horribly deteriorated masking tape and constructed a new spine with acid-free book tape. That’s my handwriting on the spine. Specifically, that is me trying my best to write legibly. Infer from that what you will about how sloppy my penmanship is.
Many, many years later, Mom mentioned that the dictionary she’d bought herself was the only one she owned, so for her next birthday I bought her a much more comprehensive Merriam-Webster dictionary. Some time after that, when we were visiting for a holiday or something, Mom brought out the old dictionary and said she never used it anymore because the newer one was much nicer. She was thinking of getting rid of the old one, but before she did, she wanted to offer it to me. Of course I took it.
I sometimes wonder just how much that incident in second grade when a librarian told me I wasn’t allowed to touch the unabridged dictionary has contributed to my obsession with dictionaries.