Robert Minto

On Dictionaries

I read my first dictionary when, as a kid, I was obliged to sit through several hours of Wednesday night prayer meeting every week.

Prayer meeting was a ritual so tedious that it was almost unendurable even before I lost my religion. Lonely old people, aspiring deacons, and over-achievers would congregate to listen to mind-numbingly repetitive monologues. I imagine that for many of the adults who liked to attend, the idea of others having to sit still and listen to them was part of the attraction, for which they paid by having to sit still and listen to others. (Considered that way, perhaps the institution wasn’t so bad — for the adults.) My problem with prayer meeting was a growing, helpless antipathy to cliché. You’ve never heard a real cliché until you’ve heard the recycled phrases of your 1437th prayer meeting. Everybody’s cancers and joblessness and poverty and loneliness and evangelical anguish on behalf of long lamented unsaved relatives, all these no doubt poignant and personal troubles, were invariably desanguinated and depersonalized by the repetitive phrases in which they were sorted and sent heavenward. I honestly wondered whether god didn’t find prayer meeting as linguistically impoverished as I did.

It wasn’t quite impious to bring a book to prayer meeting, since it took place on Wednesday, not Sunday, and since I was just a little kid. But somehow what I would have prefered to bring — the latest in the Redwall series, with a cover featuring chivalrous badgers and snarling stoats — was frowned upon. I could get away bringing, say, a dictionary.

And believe you me, I did.

Anything at all is interesting if you focus on it hard enough. And nothing makes you focus like a desperate desire to be doing anything at all but listening to the same phrases for the thousandth time. So I read the dictionary, often, with great attention and interest.

I discovered dictionaries contained some pretty good plot twists if you looked past the first two or three most common meanings of a word. Everybody else sat with their eyes screwed shut, listening to the 20th minute of somebody praying their way through every elected official from the local sherrif to the president, or working contiguously across the continental United States, praying for the weather-related vicissitudes of each region — but I’d be lost in the V’s.


Each morning I read an entry in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. It’s bracing, a cold shower for the mind. To the most vulgar prescriptivists among us, Fowler is an authority. I find plenty of occasions to argue with him; that’s what I like about his book. Like many an old man, whose privilege has hardened into voluble autocratic self-certainty, his proper function to the attentive and disrespectful mind is to raise issues, not to settle them.

The danger of dictionaries is their capacity to insinuate and enforce oppressive ideas. There’s a reason every dystopia worth its prophetic salt attempts to project the wrongness of a society in language. (See Newspeak; see Nadsat.) You’ll notice that a lot of regressive social commentary favors making its point by discussing the dictionary definition or etymology of words, usually in order to castigate the young, unduly liberated, or offensively compassionate. But the same power can be harnessed to dissent, criticism, irony. I tried my hand at this in a minor way on this very blog. But a much better example is by Teju Cole:

AFRICA. A country. Poor but happy. Rising. ALMOND. All eyes are almond-shaped. AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde. ARTICULATE. Say “you’re very articulate” to young blacks, and then ask where they are from. ARTISAN. A carpenter, in Brooklyn. ATHEISM. Deranged cult of violent fanatics. AUSTRALIANS. Extremely fit. Immune to pain. If you meet one, say “Foster’s.” The whole country is nothing but beaches. BLUE. The color of purity. Countless mysterious ads are devoted to pads and liners that absorb blue liquid. BRAVE. Doomed. BREAST. No joking matter. One glimpse on television sufficient to destroy a childhood. (See CHILDREN.) BUDDHISM. The way of peace. CARAMEL. Term used to describe black women’s skin. No other meaning known.

Read the rest.

“Cold Stream,” Cy Twombly: 1966.

I got my first ideas about metaphysics — long before I’d read any Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant — from the outline of Roget’s thesaurus. It gave me a direct vision of the fundamental philosophical problem of categories. Philosophy may begin in wonder, but it can also begin in words, wondering about words and how they relate to each other and why they fly together in just these specific flocks.


It also goes without saying that a writer who is not obsessed with words is probably a spy pretending to be a writer. You wouldn’t trust a photographer without opinions about cameras or a farmer without opinions about tractors.

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Your blog here reminds me of several things.

This article ( talks about how children need to be taught philosophy as a core-subject. Children really are natural philosophers but too often, adults beat it out of them and beat conformity into them.

I too enjoy a good perusal of a dictionary. Sometimes I particularly enjoy looking up a word that I use everyday and that everybody “knows” the definition of…because the dictionary reveals so much about what the word “really” means – which in turn opens up conversations about authority and connotation vs. denotation. Anyway, I love your examples of using the dictionary to learn and to have something to do during those long prayer meetings.

Your comments about prayer–especially, “You’ve never heard a real cliché until you’ve heard the recycled phrases of your 1437th prayer meeting”–remind me of a blog I have been drafting for a few days about how prayers embody discrimination. I’m going to try and finish it this evening or tomorrow.

Glad you’re blogging again!

Got my blog written on prayer, if you’re interested, Robert:


Robert Minto says:

Thanks for the comments and the link, Andrew. Very interesting observations about prayer. One could write something long and interesting about whether prayer plays different functions in religious communities comprised of different kinds of demographics. And of course there’s the difference between public and private prayer, and betweenthe authoritative prayers of ordained or consecrated officials and lay people, and so on — I wouldn’t be surprised if prayer meant wildly different things in these various contexts. A ripe field for sociological investigation.

Wow…so many ideas. For sure, that would be very interesting research. Reminds me of a prayer I heard from a member of Texas’s State Board of Education. I remember being really surprised how very, very political and partisan the prayer was.

Your thoughts?

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