"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

24 November 2018

On Dictionaries: A Musing on Serendipity, Awe, and Precision

I am currently immersed in Alan Jacobs' essay collection Wayfaring.  I have admired his work for years, since I first encountered it at The New Atlantis.  One of my favorite nonfiction books ever is his A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, which challenged me greatly since I know so little of philosophy, but blessed me greatly both because of the challenge and because of the subject.  Wayfaring contains short essays on a mix of subjects from Harry Potter to Kahlil Gibran to trees to Christian faith and living to . . . dictionaries.

Jacobs is no Luddite.  However, he has wisdom and discernment, and he is properly thoughtful about new technologies and their possible unintended effects.  In "Bran Flakes and Harmless Drudges," he explores the history of dictionary making and dictionary use.  Toward the end, he considers advantages of the online dictionary and its disadvantages; to my mind, and I think to his, the latter outweigh the former by quite a lot. 

"[T]he exhibition of sheer potential embodied in every dictionary," he writes, "only happens, it seems to me, when the dictionary actually has a [physical] body.  Surely every user of dictionaries or encyclopedias can recall many serendipitous discoveries: as we flip through pages in search of some particular chunk of information, our eyes are snagged by some oddity, some word or phrase or person or place, unlooked-for but all the more irresistible for that. [. . .] The great blessing of Google is its uncanny skill in finding what you're looking for; the curse is that it so rarely finds any of those lovely odd things you're not looking for.  For that pleasure, it seems, we need books."

Later, Jacobs notes that someone has said that the linear text of books "narrows and impoverishes" our views (as opposed to hypertext).  However, he objects, "it turns out that, when it comes to dictionaries anyway, it's hypertext that narrows and impoverishes.  The simple fact that I cannot pick up a [physical] dictionary and turn to the precise page I wish, or even if I could do that, focus my eyes only on the one definition I was looking for -- the very crudity, as it were, of the technology is what enriches me and opens my world to possibilities.  Only when I hold the printed book can I be ushered into the world of sheer fascination with proliferating language that people like Maria Moliner and Samuel Johnson inhabited, and encourage us to inhabit."

I am reminded of a story one of my high school teacher friends once told me.  As they were working in the library one day, a student asked her what a word meant, so she referred him to the print dictionary in the reference section.  After a bit, she looked over to see him staring at it with a look of awe.  "I never knew there were so many words," he murmured to her.  

And the fewer of those words we know, the less able we are to think and talk and write precisely and well about our world.  I am constantly taken aback at complaints about how hard my college students found certain readings because of the vocabulary, when it is often nothing I and my peers had not encountered well before entering college.  And then the resistance to learning those new words . . . as if they are too impatient to learn, to know, as if they are content to stagnate at age 18.  

I am more of a Luddite than Jacobs and than most people I know, but certainly I acknowledge the benefits of much modern technology and use a fair amount of it.  However, I've often thought about what we lose in our rush to embrace every new wonder, because losses there must be.  Awe before the remarkable gift of language, the serendipity of discovery, precision -- these are losses, and, since language is our means of knowing and thinking about our world, one has to wonder how much loss we dare incur.