The Breakfast Table

Read Any Good Dictionaries Lately?


I agree that the users of our books read them differently than we do. When the Encarta Dictionary of English was published last month, the press celebrated the event by listing the dictionary’s errors, which surely mortified Anne Soukhanov, its editor. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to people misreading what I write or students misinterpreting what I say. But it does happen all the time. I’ve come to see this as a legitimate function of reading and writing. If Gass characterizes books as living in the mind, not on the page, he’s saying to some extent that books are the creation of the reader as well as the writer. I know that when I read, I turn the text into a world that is influenced by who I am, what I have read or thought up to that point, what’s going on in my life or around me. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m reading the OED or Brideshead Revisited (two of my favorite reads).

You mentioned the example of people living in houses thinking they can critique houses as if they were architects. Well, not everyone can design or build a house, that’s true. But you know from your experience living in houses that you might have laid out the kitchen differently, or put the closet somewhere else, or made one room smaller and another larger. Users of dictionaries get to use them any way they want to, whether we like it or not. When I ask people how they use their dictionaries, they tell me for spelling (now I suppose more and more people just use spell checkers for that), or sometimes to look up an unfamiliar word. But to some extent they’re saying this because they think that’s how they’re supposed to use dictionaries. In fact many people use dictionaries to press flowers, hide money, or prop up uneven table legs. Or as booster seats for visiting small children. Dictionary editors like you and Anne Soukhanov and Sidney Landau know the fine distinctions that exist among dictionaries. But end users often treat dictionaries as interchangeable. One popular meaning of the word “Webster’s” is simply “dictionary.” This is an indication of how people lump dictionaries together. But I don’t think any dictionary–even the Encarta–defines “Webster’s” generically as “dictionary.” I assume that has something to do with trademark worries (“Webster’s” is part of the name of several dictionaries now), but it may also reflect an unwillingness on the part of dictionary makers to admit that the public doesn’t discriminate the dictionary brands the way marketers would like them to.

Users of language, like people living in houses, often wish things had been designed differently, and they often take a hand in remodeling efforts (these may have amateurish effects, or they may be quite professional). I like to ask audiences every chance I get, “If you were the boss of English, what would you change?” The three most common answers I get are still: 1) I’d reform the spelling. 2) I’d get rid of the meaningless expression “You know.” 3) There’s too much swearing.

The answers are a nice springboard for talking about: 1) how you go about reforming language, and what limitations you’d face (just saying it won’t make it so); 2) how expressions like “you know” actually function linguistically (people aren’t saying “you know” just to annoy you, even if that’s the effect); and 3) the nature of language etiquette, taboo, euphemism, and context. (As Clarence Darrow said in Inherit the Wind, “I don’t swear just for the hell of it.”)

But one more thing, to return to William Gass. I thought, when I began reading your piece, that you were going to mention the future of the book, that is, the question we hear a lot: Will print books be replaced by virtual books? I’ve been thinking about the effects of technology on our reading and writing practices, and wonder if that might be something you’d want to talk about–and speculate about. I myself see virtual text expanding. I don’t see us yet curling up with a virtual book, taking a virtual book to the beach, browsing through musty used virtual book stores looking for that elusive something special. But I do see changes happening everywhere so far as reading and writing are concerned, especially in my own literacy practice. I’m perfectly comfortable composing at a keyboard. Though I love a good fountain pen, I find that every time I have to write by hand on a pad of paper, I’m annoyed at the inconvenience, plus my handwriting is shot through lack of practice (not that it was very good to begin with). But I’m not yet at the point where I’m entirely comfortable reading and editing my writing on-screen. I’m getting there, though, and I notice I spend less and less time printing things out, editing them at the desk, then keying in corrections. That’s what I mean by technology affecting our literacy practices.

So how’s by you?