Dictionaries, Part I

I love dictionaries.

How can you not? Mine is never far from my desk. I use it all the time, whether I’m writing this blog, working on my book, writing a book description, or simply composing an e-mail.

When I was a kid I used to read the dictionary for fun. Kinda nerdy, I suppose, but I always liked to look at the root of words to see if I could understand how it got from its beginning to its present-day use. It’s one of the reasons I took four years of Latin in high school. I really can say only three sentences in Latin.  Fact is, I never expected to be fluent in that dead language, but I wanted to study Latin so that I could better understand English.

Front of ASE No. 718, Webster's New Handy Dictionary

Front of ASE No. 718,
Webster’s New Handy Dictionary

One of my favorite dictionaries is Webster’s New Handy Dictionary, the Armed Services Editions issued in 1945 by the Council on Books in Wartime. Actually, the Council published four dictionaries. There are two versions for No. 717 and two versions of No. 718. Why produce so many? Both our World War II army and navy were comprised of very young men, many of whom had yet to complete high school. They still needed to be educated, and they needed to write competent letters back home.

Back cover, ASE No. 718

Back cover, ASE No. 718

The text on the back of these dictionaries is informative: “This dictionary is intended to furnish, in compact and handy form, a wordbook that fits in the pocket.” It goes on: “It gives the authoritative spelling, brief definition, capitalization, pronunciation, syllabication, and abbreviation of more than 15,000 words in common, everyday use.”

Syllabication. When was the last time you used that word?

It apparently also doubled as a teacher, “In addition, this dictionary contains a remarkably inclusive Pronouncing Gazetteer of place names of the widest interest, hundreds of Foreign Words and Phrases; a section on Abbreviation; Rules for Punctuation and Capitalization.”

It defined standard time. It listed the national flowers of 12 countries. It listed the largest cities in the world, giving population totals. It listed the oceans, giving depths. It gave world populations by race and by creed. It listed the largest lakes in the world and the loftiest mountains. It listed territories and dependencies of the United States. It listed the longest rivers in the world.

I know. Damn!

Next week: The Dictionary of American Slang.



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