my relationship with the dictionary

October 16, 2012

I did something I haven’t done in a very long time — I looked up a word in the dictionary. That is, I pulled down the second volume (N-Z) of my copy of The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) from the top shelf of my bookshelf and riffled the pages to “withdrawal,” the word I wanted to learn more about.

In my journal this morning, I was writing about the three types of coping mechanisms Charlotte Joko Beck discusses in Nothing Special: “conforming to please, attacking, or withdrawing” (122). Those of you who have had enough therapy or psych classes probably recognize that my focus on “withdrawal” means I was investigating my primary coping strategy. As I wrote, I got caught up with the word — where did it come from? Why pair these two words — “with” and “draw”? Anything to do with 19th-century British drawing rooms? I was veering off into duels and Samuel Richardson-like scenarios as I contemplated the widely different meanings of the word — for instance, “withdrawal” is what one experiences if one stops engaging in an addiction. So I thought, ‘I need to look this up.’ And the most curious thing occurred — I decided that my usual practice of googling the word and choosing the Merriam Webster definition would not give me the information I needed. I wanted origins, history, context. Nothing but the Shorter OED would do.

I felt virtuous as I hoisted the fiteen pounds of paper and binding down from the shelf. I opened the pages and realized I needed to change my regular glasses to reading glasses or else I wouldn’t be able to decipher the print. No matter — I was delighted to land on “wibbly-wobbly” on my way to “withdrawal” and thought, yet again with that Luddite smugness, ‘Oh, I’d never have found this word if I’d just gone online.’

“Wicca” is the entry directly below “wibbly-wobbly,” and my smugness slipped a smidgeon. “The practices and religious cult of modern witchcraft.” That’s it? I thought of Wikipedia and imagined a much longer and much more informative entry. I got sidetracked for a few seconds with “wichert” (a kind of chalk mixed with straw to make walls) and “wichuraiana” (roses named after Max Ernst Wichura) and thought again that the online Merriam Webster would have confined me to looking only at entries before or after the word I sought.

Before reading the entry for “withdrawal,” I marveled at the four full columns dedicated to “with,” thus proving that prepositions are the bane of any English language learner. “Withdrawal” – “n. E19” tells me the word is a noun from the early 19th century. I had to go back to the front part of volume 1 to get the explanation for “E19.” “[f. WITHDRAW v + -AL, repl. the earlier WITHDRAWMENT.]” There’s a superscript 1 after “-AL,” and I’m not going to ferret out what it refers to. The initial “f.” means “from.” I found that explanation at the front of volume 2, where all abbreviations are listed. I still did not find out if the word is originally English but no mention of any other language indicates its English origins. The definitions spanned from the psychological to the financial. I did not learn what I wanted, which was a history of the word.

So I googled “withdrawal” and clicked on the Merriam Webster definition. No hefting of bound pages, no need for reading glasses since I could adjust the font, no need to go back to volume 1 to figure out all the abbreviations. Same definitions, but I find out that the first use of the word was in 1749. No documentation for that claim. The medical term for “withdrawal” also has its own separate entry. And I am invited to tell Merriam Webster why I was looking for this word. I can also read users’ comments, and I learn that while one person has been spelling the word wrong for years (spellcheck informed her), another user was pleased that Merriam Webster online proved her email spellcheck wrong when it chastised her for spelling “withdrawal” incorrectly. (I have just realized that I will never get back the five minutes I’ve spent reading these comments and writing about them.)

I’ve always read a lot, and one of my great pleasures as a child, a tween, a teen, and even a young adult was looking up words in the dictionary. I had a hard-bound American Heritage dictionary — I think. I remember what the cover looked like and how the threads of the cover came undone over the years of use. I was one of those word nerds, who wrote down the word and the meaning and then tried to use the word in conversation or writing. Word nerds get this — that palpable joy in vocabulary and increasing one’s choice.

But my experience today tells me that I won’t likely pull down The New Shorter OED any time soon. I like seeing the two fat navy-blue volumes on my top shelf and remembering when my family gave the costly birthday present. But to find a definition, I’m likely going to continue my habit of googling a word and choosing the Merriam Webster definition. But I need to remember that my practice costs me the smile that “wibbly-wobbly” engenders and the insight about the labyrinthine usages of that deceptively innocuous preposition, “with.”

wurdz in Nunberg’s “The Persistence of English”

October 25, 2006

I finally found the essay which describes Noah Webster’s attempt to distinguish American English from British English through orthography. Geoffrey Nunberg writes the following in “The Persistence of English“:

Even at the time of American independence, the linguistic differences between America and Britain were as great as those that separate many languages today, and the differences would have become much more salient if Americans had systematically adopted all of the spelling reforms that Webster had at one time proposed, such as wurd, reezon, tung, iz, and so forth, which would ultimately have left English and American looking superficially no more similar than German and Dutch. (11)

OK, it looks as if adding “z” to make the plural of “wurd” may not have been Webster’s idea and I fabricated my own plural. Ah, well. Works for me.