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.
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.