For the Dictionary Readers

Picture of Art

Art by Leeloo, Photo by Cat

A recent Locus Roundtable question led me to thinking about this. It starts with a confession: I read dictionaries, a habit since early, early years of Richard Scarry.

Not cover to cover, as you would a novel. Rather I pick them up, flip through the pages, pause to dip into them in search of new words to file away mentally. I relish new words so I’m always looking for them, especially sinewy and interesting new verbs, or nouns crusted with bits of morphological history.

I know I’m not alone in this — it’s a disease that many (though certainly not all, or even most, I think) writers (and some non-writers) share, and it’s not one its sufferers talk about much, because Good LORD how boring is that, reading the dictionary?

I have an American Heritage I’ll never part with, and beyond that the beloved Compact OED, three volumes and accompanying magnifying glass, that my brother Lowell got for me while I was in grad school and which will be with me till my dying days, I firmly well. And specialized dictionaries: a Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, a dictionary of foreign terms, another of fashion terms, and a glut of foreign language dictionaries, Russian, Hawaiian, Navaho, jostle for space on one on my most visited bookshelves.

Morphology — the history built into the syllables — fascinates me. That the proto Indo-European word “dwoh” (two) leads to words like double and duo and duplicate and duplicity (two-facedness) is just too cool. In my junior year of high school we had a vocabulary textbook that focused on roots – each section was several roots along with lengthy lists of words derived from them. I loved the idea that you could take a word apart and find its meaning built into it with the syllables of which it was made.

When I was in grad school, we had evenings of pot-luck suppers followed by play reading or rounds of the dictionary game (for which the aforementioned American Heritage was often employed). I will argue that playing word-games can be fun, but that playing it with clever writers can be intoxicating and exhilarating (note the shared root with “hilarity” there) and make you laugh so hard and long your face hurts. My all-time favorite remains the false definition for the word “nidor” – Naval acronym employed when inspecting submarines, stands for Nothing Is Damp Or Rusted.

Sometimes self-consciousness overtakes me. In high school a girl once asked me why I talked “so snobby,” an accusation that still pokes me on occasion. It’s a reason I like talking to other writers — no one views a previously unknown word as a hostile act but rather a gem that duplicates itself in the sharing. No one’s the poorer for talking to someone whose vocabulary stretches them.

Nothing jars on me quite so much as a word used in a half-right fashion, a square peg hammered down into that round hole and MADE to fit through sheer Humpty-Dumptyian insistence (an Alice in Wonderland reference that all we word-lovers know, go read the book if you never have, particularly if you’re a fantasy writer).

What about you? What are the words or word sources that you particularly love?

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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