Another way to prove you’re a gentleperson and a scholar
October 20, 2018 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Indiana University English professor Michael Adams reflects on dictionaries as physical objects.
posted by Vesihiisi (13 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, the ill-fated relationship I spent way too long in because the guy had an enormous dictionary.
Eventually, I owned a bigger one. ;)
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:08 AM on October 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

The icon is the binding, searchability is the thumb index. The history of print dictionaries-as-physical-objects tells us that it’s not the same, but using a digital dictionary turns out to be as material as knowledge in the digital present can be—plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Well-designed digital dictionaries can serve the same social purposes as their printed forebears—express one’s identity, one’s aspirations, one’s status as registered by various forms of consumption and various modes of utility and style. They can’t stop doors. They can’t substitute for booster seats. From a sleek screen on a stand, however, dictionaries can still furnish a room.

I still like cracking open a dictionary for random words and that's the thing about physical dictionaries as decor - they're interactive!

PSA about digital versions - you might have OED access through your local public library:

Access the new OED Online free and from home using your local library's subscription. Nearly every public library in the United Kingdom now subscribes to the OED. Remote access means you can log-in at home—or anywhere at any time—using your library membership number.

The OED is also available worldwide via the libraries of universities, colleges, schools, and others
[sic] institutions.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:24 AM on October 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I am the owner of naught but a humble Concise Oxford Dictionary that I bought in the early 90s, but it's equipped with the thumb index. 👍
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:39 AM on October 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I bought an old, used Webster's Third and practically needed a physical therapy appointment after lugging it back to my office, where it now takes up too much space on the desk. Virtue signalling? Hellz yeah.

(And I do try to open it at random each day and learn a new word, or investigate one I thought I already knew well...)
posted by PhineasGage at 9:23 AM on October 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

they were also household ornaments that signified eloquently the social status of their owners.

Much cheaper than a piano, too
posted by thelonius at 9:24 AM on October 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I remember when the American Heritage dictionary first came out. It was sort of revolutionary in that it had a Usage Panel and it had opinions! right in the definition itself! You could argue with it, and it sometimes argued with itself. Sometimes the usage opinions went on for much longer than the actual definition. Lovely book.
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:27 AM on October 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Growing up, every house I ever visited had a dictionary, and many also had an encyclopedia of one flavor or another. I don't remember ever having to sit on one to reach the table. We still have my wife's Webster's Collegiate Circa 1977.

My second-year roommate at college turned out to be the prototype english major snob. He hailed from back east. He managed to completely piss-off just about everyone in the dorm. All 10 floors. He proudly displayed his two-volume Compact OED. Before the end of the school year, some of us surreptitiously cleanly sliced two or three pages out of his OED.

He had a nice set of Advent speakers, though.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:20 AM on October 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I bought a Compact OED for a mere £5 earlier this year, complete with magnifier & slipcase. Even at such a cheap price, it seemed a bit of a superfluous purchase. But then, thanks to the ever-deeper cuts on local government spending here in the UK, my library stopped providing access to the online OED, which made owning the books feel like a much better idea. I've now also acquired a Compact edition of the DNB to go with it!
posted by misteraitch at 11:52 AM on October 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

That is a really nice piece.
AFAIK, there are more books and magazines printed today than ever before, even as lots of people I know have completely stopped reading printed books. When I go to bookstores, I get the feeling that somehow the status of book ownership is even higher than it was pre-internet. Books are prettier than they were, and there are more pretty books.
Actually, just today, someone either flirted or bragged at me by telling how many books he read last week (It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference).

Because of my work, I have many dictionaries, and while I don't use them as much as I did, there are some questions and problems where a physical dictionary is more useful than a digital one, to me. This includes when I am helping my children with their homework, so maybe I'm passing on an experience to them.
posted by mumimor at 12:19 PM on October 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you like dictionaries, you might like: The Great Passage (anime). Which is the story of the 10 year period it took to write, edit, publish... The Kojien, the most authoritative of Japanese dictionaries (supposedly?).

I've staked the claim on my grandparent's old dictionary. It was about 4 inches (10cm) thick. The last couple of hundred pages were just infographic like broad overviews of many, many things.
Here's the footsteps to some dances. Here's ballet poses. Here's fencing. Here's boating, etc.

Who's the good book? You're the good book. Yes you are. (pats book)
posted by zengargoyle at 2:51 PM on October 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I came to recommend The Great Passage(the novel) as well. For lovers of words, nothing beats a book about the making of a book about words.

The Professor and the Madman is obligatory, of course.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:57 PM on October 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't know which dictionary we had, as a family, in the 1960's, but I do remember this: in our family of eight, there were only two excuses to leave the dinner table. One was to replenish the bread plate. The other was to go to the dictionary stand to look up a word. To bring a new word into the family discussion was a coup. We were WASP AF.
posted by kozad at 8:01 PM on October 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid I spent a summer on a farm, mostly herding cows. There weren’t any kids my age anywhere nearby, so I spent my evenings mostly reading, as the farmhouse was stuffed full of books. When I was confirmed the farmers gave me a copy of Webster’s Third International as a confirmation gift. It felt then, and still does, like a statement of belief in me. Back then I was fairly isolated socially and didn’t have many people around me who believed in me.

That book followed me through secondary school and college, and I still have that same copy. It’s still useful, and used, which isn’t something that I can say about anything else I was given in my early teens. Funnily enough, I realized that to this day I’m partisan to Webster’s. I almost exclusively look English words up on, for instance. Having grown up with the style of Webster’s Third International, it’s the easiest one for me to parse quickly.
posted by Kattullus at 4:13 AM on October 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

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