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Why Use a Dictionary in the Age of Internet Search?

  • September 18, 2021

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 do remember feeling a little betrayed by the idea that there was a whole layer of language that couldn’t quite be conveyed through a dictionary. Like most young people, I enjoyed learning but thought of it as something I would eventually be done with. At some age, I assumed, I would need to know everything. Understanding the nuances of language seemed like an obstacle to that goal.

It wasn’t until after I graduated from college, and subsequently realized that there’s no such thing as all-encompassing knowledge, that I was able to read for pleasure. A sense of curiosity, rather than desperate completism, steered me. I started to see dictionaries, inexact as they are, as field guides to the life of language. Looking up words encountered in the wild felt less like a failing than like an admission that there are lots of things I don’t know and an opportunity to discover just how many.

I prize my 1954 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, which I picked up on the street near my apartment in Brooklyn a few years ago. Its 3,000 pages (India paper, with a marbled fore edge) are punctuated by a thumb index. I keep it open, solitary on a tabletop, the way dictionaries are usually found in libraries. I often consult it during evening games of Scrabble or midday magazine-reading. I mostly read novels at night, in bed, so when I come across unfamiliar words, I dog-ear the bottom of the page, then look words up in spurts. When I start encountering these words, newly resplendent to my pattern-seeking mind, in articles, podcasts, other books and even the occasional conversation, the linguistic universe seems to shrink to the size of a small town. Dictionaries heighten my senses, almost like certain mind-altering substances: They direct my attention outward, into a conversation with language. They make me wonder what other things I’m blind to because I haven’t taught myself to notice them yet. Recently spotted specimens include orrery, “a mechanical model, usually clockwork, devised to represent the motions of the earth and 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, around 1700. Useful? Obviously not. Satisfying? Deeply.

With dictionaries, unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why leave them up to guesswork?

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