Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"My father used to sit and read the dictionary by the hour."

My father used to sit and read the dictionary by the hour. As a boy I could never understand it, but I do now. He was one of the original subscribers of the Standard Dictionary, paying five dollars in advance and when it was impossible to publish at that price sending in the second five. As I say, he used to read it by the hour. I never learned the dia-critical marking, new style, and have always stuck to a Webster. In college days my roommate talked me into buying a Standard. This I did, floundered around with the pronunciation and wished I had a Webster. At the same time the president of our college, Woodrow Wilson, had bought a Webster. This he did not like, wanting a Standard. He mentioned the fact one day in a preceptorial division and I offered to exchange. We made an even trade, as I remember. This was in 1908. I have often wondered if his war speeches were abetted by my dictionary. His, I used, up ‘til 1918 when it was stolen out of my study. I hope the appropriator found Mr. Wilson’s name in it, ‘though I doubt if that was the reason it was taken. For a long time I have coveted the Oxford Dictionary, the big one, but the price was prohibitive. When in came down to within my reach I happened to read Billy Phelps who says it’s pedantic for an individual to want it so I have up my ambition and not very long ago became the proud possessor of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, known in England as the S.O.E.D. I am sure that if my father had had this he would have read nothing else, for the history of each word is traced, and dated. So many many words came into the language, I find in the decade following 1600. This, however, is more or less of a teaser. Someday I am going to have the big one. This just starts you off on a hunt, and then you go to the library to look up the full genealogy of your word. Today, I wrote an appreciative review of a friend’s book, saying something like this—“He weighs with a just balance. It is in the main however, Troy rather than avoirdupois,” thinking that I had paid him a fine compliment indicating the scrupulous discerning quality of his observation. I turned up Troy, however, in the Oxford and found to my consternation, having mailed my manuscript, something like this—B. fig. In allusion to the pound Troy being less than the pound avoirdupois 1599, “There was Cresid and Nell was avoirdupois 1599.” My friend wrote back in high dudgeon that I had done despite to his volume. Why the magazine editor didn’t catch it I do not know, apparently he was no wiser than I.

--Jesse Halsey

No comments: