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Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Smelly Old Dictionaries, New Words and Old

When I was very young, my grandfather brought home a huge dictionary. It was about two feet thick—the kind they put on pedestals in libraries in the old days. Everyone in the family thought he was nuts but me. I was awarded it by default, put it in the basket of my blue and white Schwinn, and pedaled it home. It was a bit unwieldy so eventually it was stowed in the rafters of a basement room. Then when I was in New York learning the ropes of publicity, my mom and dad sold the house. “Oh, no! My dictionary!” I asked them to try to retrieve it from the new owners but the story hadn’t changed much. They thought I was crazy.

So a couple years later when I went home to visit, I stopped by our old home on a whim. It took chutzpah! “Hello, I used to live here and there may be something in your basement that belongs to me—that is, if you don’t have a need for it.”

Now this was not yesterday. In those days people actually let strangers into their homes occasionally, but there was still a chance they’d consider an ax-murder possibiity. I trailed behind the new owners to the basement and there it was. It hadn’t been moved an inch but it was covered with cobwebs and dust. I was ecstatic and the new owners were either happy to let me have it or eager to get rid of me.

I still have that dictionary. It has those little thumbprint cutouts for the different letters of the alphabet and the edges of each page are gilded. It has a linen cover. It can’t really be used because it has none of the new words in it.

Ahhh, yes. But it does have four color plates of the flags of countries that existed then. There are even a few that still exist. Most of the changes have been in Africa. There are other pages that illustrate flowers and the human skeleton. Stuff like that. I mean, this is a real dictionary. So I kept it for the smell (however smudgey—that’s my own word for moldy-but-I-don’t-care-how-bad-it-stinks!), the memories, the feel of the silky thin but still substantial pages. And because I kept reading that dictionaries discarded old words to make room for the new. And, naturally, I couldn’t discard any words, right? Fiction writers can find old words valuable.

By the time computers came along, I was attached to this volume, this tome, this giant doorstop! And now the kicker!

National Geographic tells me that the words in the Oxford English Dictionary never disappear. Once a word has been very carefully vetted, it stays there. “The OED is unique,” says the new words editor of the book, “in that we never remove a word once it has been included.”

Just in case you’re interested, they add some 4,000 words of 6,000 considered each year. Including the new meaning of the word “unplugged.” It now also means the “state of living without electronic devices.”

Now wouldn’t that be awful! Almost as bad as living without my near-ancient dictionary!

PS: Can’t resist another just-added word. You know when you put your Coke bottle on a manuscript and it leaves a caramel-colored ring that can’t be erased? Rejoice. You have made a “dringle.”

PS: My articles, essays—even my rants—are available for reprint in your blog or Web site. Just let me know what article you like and I’ll supply you with an appropriate credit line with links. HoJoNews @ aol (dot) com.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults. and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success (How To Do It Frugally series of book for writers). Learn more about her other authors' aids at , where writers will find lists and other helps including Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. She tweets writers' resources at . Please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:

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