Friday, September 20, 2013

My First Dictionary

by Pa Rock

When I was in elementary school, probably fourth grade, the teacher came up with one of those activities designed to keep certain kids busy when they had finished their work.  In this particular activity she presented the students with a fairly long word, and the person who could come up with the most words that used only letters from her word would win a prize.   Memory fades as the high tides of youth slowly recede into the sea of eternity, and I can no longer remember which teacher created this busy work, or what the word was – but I do remember that the prize was a chocolate turtle and that I won it.

I had never had a chocolate turtle before.

There weren’t many books in our house, but as it became apparent to my parents that their oldest was becoming an avid reader, they began to take a bit more interest in enhancing learning opportunities at home.  One day, not long after I won the chocolate turtle and had worn my parents out by asking them to give me long words that I could use for this word game, my mother came home with a brand new Webster’s dictionary.  I was immediately captivated by that wonderful book and spent many happy hours looking up new words and learning their meanings. 

The longest word that I found in my Webster’s dcitionary was spondylotherapeutics, a twenty-letter gem that referred to something in the medical field – though what exactly I cannot remember.  My cousin, a wonderful girl who lived far, far away in a land called Hickman Mills, told me that the longest word in the English language was antidisestablishmentarianism, a twenty-eight-letter gem, but her word was not in my humble Webster’s.  In fact, I recently saw a statement on the Internet that said her word has never been in any edition of Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries because it is no longer thought to be used in the common parlance.  The definition of antidisestablishmentarianism is:  “Properly, opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England."

The unabridged Webster’s Third New International Dictionary now lists pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a hefty 45-letter masterwork as the longest word in the English language.  That big word means:  “A lung disease caused by inhaling very fine irritant particles.”  The complete definition is only seven letters longer than the word it explains. 

Needless to say, Bill Gates and Microsoft do not recognize any of those big words.

I’m sad to report that spondylotherapeutics is no longer in most dictionaries, including the aforementioned Webster’s Third New International.  That is their loss, because it is a great word, one of my all-time favorites.

 I also regret that I let that old Webster’s dictionary of my youth get away at the auction that our family held after my father passed away.  It was old, and brittle, and turning yellow, but, then again, so am I.  It was also a dear friend.


Xobekim said...

Entering the SMS library, there was a grand old dictionary sitting in the lobby. It was a hefty tome. Each time I went into the library I'd turn those massive pages and place a random finger on a page. Of the many new words I learned was pediluvium. That is a basin used to wash feet. That word is difficult to find in modern dictionaries.

Apparently people have less concern about dictionaries being living documents than they do applying that concept to the Constitution. Yet law and language usage each adapt to the changes in society. Neither the rules of Liberty nor the rules of spelling are altered in the process. Just a thought.

Don said...

At the Firestone Library at Princeton University, there once resided a dictionary that I came to treasure -- so much so that I went out and bought one despite living on the pittance that graduate school scholarships paid in the late 60s. The Oxford English Dictionary contained not only every word, but a mini-treatise on many of them.
As a medieval history student, I was required on a regular basis to demonstrate competence in Latin. The OED not only helped in that regard, but steered me toward what has become a lifelong passion for etymology.
Dictionaries rock!