What My Dictionary Taught Me
This article appeared in Publishers Weekly magazine.
There was a time when I couldn’t work/write without my physical, hardcover dictionary at my side. It’s not that I can’t spell, or that my vocabulary is scant. My dictionary has always been a springboard for inspiration, especially when I’m in the early, just-thinking stages of a project. I play a kind of word association game with myself and it helps to fuel my creativity. For example, if I’m working on a project about shampoo, and I need to dig deeply into my conceptual side, I look up a plethora of words that relate to it to fuel my creative ideas. Hair, roots, brush, comb. Split ends, conditioner, soap, bubbles. Mane, locks, tresses, ringlets, perm. Lather, rinse, repeat this process until I’ve gathered an arsenal of adjectives, nouns, verbs, phrases, clichés, idioms, and anything else word-wise that will help me begin writing. It’s fun. A little like Kevin Bacon’s six-degrees game, only geekier.
But almost everything I do with my writing is electronic these days—except for the few notebooks and pads that I still use to jot down ideas longhand. So, I find myself on dot-coms, spending less time rummaging through the physical pages of my trusted dictionary.
Recently, curiosity—and not a specific project—led me to an interest in x words. There are those few we all have locked in our brains. The ones we resort to in a game of Scrabble— x-ray, xylophone, and the big cheaters like x-citing, x-traordinary and x-static. I knew there had to be more. I hauled my Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary off my shelf, wiped off the dust, and flipped through to x.
To my surprise, I could not find it. I flipped back and forth a few times, but still couldn’t locate it. And then I realized I couldn’t find y either. Wait a minute. W was in place. So was z. Where were x and y? Had I completely forgotten how to navigate a physical dictionary? I thumped the book closed and started again. And this time I s-l-o-w-l-y made my way to the back of the tome. I licked my pointer again and again to swipe the pages, just to be sure a few had not stuck together. Nope. The pages went from 2190 right to 2208. Wormy right to z. Eighteen pages of x and y were missing! I felt like Christopher Columbus, only in reverse. I had discovered that this serious dictionary that I had been using for years now (or clearly not using enough) was missing a huge chunk of land, and the worst part was that I didn’t notice it until now!
I had to do something. I couldn’t just put the book back on the shelf and walk away. I looked up Random House’s customer service number. Customer service bumped me to the department that oversees these dictionaries. After giving a pleasant phone person the ISBN number, title, publication date, etc., she checked to see if there were any complaints or problems assigned to this book. Nothing. She told me I should bring it back to Barnes & Noble, my place of purchase, and it could issue a refund or offer an exchange there.
I have yet to visit Barnes & Noble for this reason. This $69.95 dictionary may be flawed, but I am too. It’s now on my desk, rather than back on the bookshelf, to remind me of a few things. For one, I need to stop relying solely on electronic tools to feed my writing process. Looking at things electronically is great and quick, but because everything comes at you in blips of information, it’s too easy to not see the big picture of something. And secondly, I need to explore sections of my writing that I may have overlooked. The last thing I want to become is one of those Xanthippe-types who only use Yahoo to stir up ideas.