Treat the dictionary as your vade mecum | Sunday Observer

Treat the dictionary as your vade mecum

12 September, 2021

One Sunday morning, after attending church services in Hartford, Mark Twain told Dr. Doane, the minister: “I enjoyed your service this morning, doctor. I welcomed it like an old friend. I have, you know, a book at home containing every word of it.”

“You have not,” said the indignant minister.

“I have it,” countered Twain.

“Then send it to me. I’d really like to see it.”

“I’ll send it,” promised Twain and the following day he sent Dr. Doane an unabridged dictionary!

The dictionary is probably the most used and most useful of all reference materials. However, you may not know how to choose a dictionary from among three types of dictionaries. My association with dictionaries goes back to the 1940s when my father bought me a copy of the Oxford Dictionary. From then onwards I have used a large number of dictionaries during the past seven decades.

Tricky business

Selecting a dictionary is somewhat a tricky business for a beginner because there are three types of dictionaries as I have mentioned before. As schoolchildren we used to carry pocket dictionaries which contained a limited number of words. As its name suggests, a pocket dictionary is relatively small. Some of the pocket dictionaries contain about 75,000 entries. Although it is a handy reference book, a pocket dictionary does not contain enough entries adequate for college reference or homework.

Then there are desk or college-level dictionaries which contain over 170,000 entries plus extra features. If you are preparing for a higher examination, you will need a desk dictionary. Many scholars depend on standard desk dictionaries such as Oxford, Cambridge, Collins, Webster and Longman. Modern dictionaries such as the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary provide extra information about the language in addition to giving the meaning and pronunciation of words. The latest dictionaries give usage labels and more opinions about the origin of words.

If you are planning to buy a good dictionary, invest in an unabridged edition. An unabridged dictionary is a complete dictionary as it contains a large number of words and how they are used. Colleges, universities, newspaper offices and publishing houses use unabridged dictionaries. Such a dictionary will contain about 450,000 entries. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED) shows the historical development of English words vividly. It is very useful for professional writers and academics. CD-Rom versions are also available for easy computer searching.

Dynamic language

Even if you buy the best dictionary, you cannot use it forever. English being a responsive and dynamic language which borrows words and phrases from other languages, you may have to buy the latest edition of a dictionary at least after ten years. Any serious student of English needs an up-to-date dictionary which reflects the changes in meaning, spelling and usage of familiar words.

When you buy a dictionary check the features it offers in addition to vocabulary definitions. Many dictionaries published in recent years contain biographical and geographical data, abbreviations, standard measurements, signs, symbols, foreign words, phrases and hitherto unknown information about the language.

Before using a dictionary to find the meaning of a word, take a look at the introduction. You should pay particular attention to the order of definitions and the abbreviations used. Most dictionaries show common definitions first and then give examples. Other dictionaries develop meanings historically. Therefore it is advisable to have more than one dictionary at your disposal.

When searching for the meaning of a word, first look at the words in bold type at the top of each page. Look only at the guide words until you locate the desired page. I have seen many students looking for the word without being guided by the words in bold type. You will have to be familiar with syllable breaks marked with a centred dot.

Do not repeat the dots when you write them. Compound words seem to be troublesome for some dictionary users. If a compound word is shown with a centred dot as in “work.out” (workout), it is considered as one word. However, if a compound word is shown with a hyphen, it is a hyphenated word as in “old-fashioned.”

Phonetic symbols

Most dictionaries use phonetic symbols to help users to pronounce words correctly. If you do not understand them, read the explanation of such symbols or ask your teacher. You should remember that there are slight variations in spelling and pronunciation in American English. Most computers are equipped with American English spell checkers. As we study British English, we have to be aware of the differences between the two types of English.

On 15 April 1755 the first great dictionary of English was published by Samuel Johnson. His “Dictionary of the English Language” was an audacious attempt to tame the unruly language. Unlike today’s dictionaries, Johnson’s dictionary mapped the contours of the language with his steely wit and clarity of thought. When British speakers of English refer to the dictionary, they usually refer to the OED while Americans incline towards the Webster’s Dictionary. Whatever that may be, for nearly 150 years “the dictionary” meant “Johnson’s Dictionary.”

The editor of the supplement to the OED paid a glowing tribute to Johnson when he said, “In the whole tradition of English language and literature the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank is that of Dr Johnson.” Unlike other dictionaries, Johnson’s is a work of literature. Various poets and authors such as John Keats, P.B. Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, George Eliot, Carlyle, Ruskin, Geremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill always consulted Johnson’s dictionary. Emerson thought Johnson a ‘muttonhead’ but consulted his dictionary all the time.

Like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, Americans celebrate Dictionary Day which falls on 16 October each year. October 16 is the birthday of Noah Webster who lived in West Hartford. He was an American lexicographer, textbook pioneer and English language spelling reformer. He wrote his first dictionary in 1840.

Whenever I refer to the dictionary, my mind goes back to the 1950s. When I was attending a private English medium school, the English master insisted that all students should bring their dictionaries to the class. One day a student forgot to bring his dictionary to class. The teacher asked him, “Where’s your vade mecum?” The student scratched his head. “Treat the dictionary as your vade mecum, it will always come with you!” the teacher thundered. [email protected]