Dic­tio­nary Story

This is part one of a two-part piece; part two will ap­pear in

Geist - - City Of Words - AL­BERTO MANGUEL

We are con­demned to loss. From the mo­ment we come into this world, we lose ev­ery­thing we be­lieve is ours, from the com­fort of the womb to the mem­ory of a life­time. Cir­cum­stances change, de­sires wane, our mem­ory loses its hold. We walk to­ward the grave shed­ding stuff: toys, play­mates, par­ents, teach­ers, home­land, en­thu­si­asms, dates, tastes, be­liefs, knick-knacks ac­cu­mu­lated on the shore through­out the years. All these and many more (but I can’t now re­mem­ber what they are) drift away, for­got­ten, as if to lighten our de­scent into the realm of shad­ows. Death is not, as we like to sup­pose, a sud­den night caller, but rather re­sem­bles one of those dis­hon­est guests who come for a week­end and grad­u­ally out­stay their wel­come, tak­ing up more and more room over longer and longer pe­ri­ods, un­til we feel that nei­ther our house nor our life be­long to us any longer. “Where did we put that book?” we ask. “Where is that photograph I knew I had?” “What was that name, that ad­dress, that un­for­get­table look, that mem­o­rable line?” Alms for obliv­ion, some­one wrote, but rest of the lines I knew have also van­ished, gone into the guest’s pocket, never to be seen again.

And yet, a clus­ter of these things clings on, doggedly re­sist­ing ab­duc­tion, so that in the dim light of old age we might rec­og­nize a few fa­mil­iar faces, a few dear bits and pieces— a few but not many, and not al­ways. Most of them are nei­ther no­to­ri­ous nor pres­ti­gious: our mem­ory is not picky. A smile floats down, dis­em­bod­ied, like the grin on the Cheshire Cat; a snip­pet of a song; a para­graph in a story; the dap­pled im­age of a for­est; a con­ver­sa­tion of no im­por­tance—these per­sist, scat­tered on the ground after the garbage truck has passed. In this heap of left­overs are also a few solid ob­jects: maybe a cup, a pen, a stone, a vol­ume of po­etry and, why not, a dic­tio­nary.

For my gen­er­a­tion (I was born in the first half of the pre­vi­ous cen­tury) dic­tio­nar­ies mat­tered. Our el­ders trea­sured their Bi­ble, or the Com­plete Works of Shake­speare, or Betty Crocker’s cook­book. For the gen­er­a­tions of this third mil­len­nium, it will per­haps not be a book at all but a nos­tal­gic Game­boy or an iphone. But for many read­ers of my age, the Shorter Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary, the Petit Robert, the Sopena, Web­ster’s were the names of our li­braries’ guardian an­gels. Mine, when I was in high school, was the Span­ish edi­tion of the Petit Larousse Il­lus­tré, with its pink stra­tum of for­eign phrases sep­a­rat­ing com­mon words from proper names.

In the days of my youth, for those of us who liked to read, the dic­tio­nary was a mag­i­cal ob­ject of mys­te­ri­ous pow­ers. First, be­cause we were told that here, in this small fat vol­ume, was al­most the en­tirety of our com­mon lan­guage; that be­tween the drab cov­ers were all the words that named ev­ery­thing in the world that we knew and also ev­ery­thing in the world that we did not know; that the dic­tio­nary held the past (all those words spo­ken by our grand­par­ents and great-grand­par­ents, mum­bled in the dark and which are no longer used) and the fu­ture (words to name what we might one day want to say, when a new ex­pe­ri­ence would call for them.) Sec­ond, be­cause the dic­tio­nary, like a benev­o­lent Sibyl, an­swered all our ques­tions when we stum­bled over dif­fi­cult words in a story (even though, as He­len Keller’s teacher com­plains in The Mir­a­cle Worker, “What use is a dic­tio­nary if you have to know how a word is spelled be­fore you can find out how to spell it?”).

We were taught to be cu­ri­ous. When­ever we asked a teacher what some­thing meant, we were told to “Look it up in the dic­tio­nary!” We never thought of this as a pun­ish­ment. On the con­trary: with this com­mand we were given en­try to a magic cav­ern in which one word would lead with­out rhyme or rea­son (ex­cept an ar­bi­trary al­pha­bet­i­cal rea­son) to the next. We learned that even a great poet like Robert Brown­ing could make dread­ful mis­takes for fail­ing to con­sult the dic­tio­nary, as when, in his poem “Pippa Passes,” he speaks of a “nun’s twat” un­der the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that it is an ar­ti­cle of re­li­gious cloth­ing.

We would look up “snow ban­ner,” for ex­am­ple, after read­ing in a Jack Lon­don story that “from the tip of ev­ery peak, sway­ing, un­du­lat­ing, flar­ing out broadly against the azure sky, streamed gi­gan­tic snow ban­ners,” and dis­cover not only the sense in which Lon­don used the word, but that, in Canada (a name that for me was still noth­ing but a vast pink shape on the map), “snow ban­ner” meant the cloud tinged with pink that car­ries hor­i­zon­tal flur­ries across the skies. Sev­eral decades later, when caught in a blizzard in St. John’s, New­found­land, I found that I had the word to name the ex­pe­ri­ence. Aby War­burg, the great reader, de­fined for us all what he called a li­brary’s “law of the good neigh­bour.” Ac­cord­ing to War­burg, the book with which one was fa­mil­iar was not, in most cases, the book one needed. It was the un­known neigh­bour on the same shelf that con­tained the vi­tal in­for­ma­tion. The same can be said of the words in a dic­tio­nary, though in the elec­tronic age a vir­tual dic­tio­nary of­fers less of a chance for serendip­ity, or for the kind of happy dis­trac­tion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.