More Than Just A Book of Words
Reading a dictionary – now there’s a novel idea. And a challenging one, at that. I’d been thinking about what to post next; as I considered topics, something came to me:
A dictionary contains every word in every story you’ve ever read or written or will ever read or write. When was the last time you read through one?
Or have you ever tried?
And then I came across a short but informative article on just this subject. It’s a great little article on why reading a dictionary will greatly improve your writing and I’ll quote often from it here because he made so many wonderful points.
“When I misbehaved as a kid, writing out sections of the dictionary was the way my father punished me. At the time, I wished he’d have chosen any other means of discipline. Throw out my Xbox, no television for a week, make me eat broccoli, anything but that dictionary I’d think. Little did I know how much this book improved my vocabulary.”
Isaiah McCall, Journalist and NYC comedian
I have a clear memory of our thick Webster’s Dictionary sitting alongside our complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica that sat in a small bookcase in the long hallway between the kitchen and living room/bedrooms. Growing up pre-Digital Age, I often referred to that dictionary when writing school papers (in longhand and rewritten often to achieve perfection because the Catholic nuns accepted no less).
“Real self-improvement is doing the activities that most people would rather avoid. It could be waking up a little earlier, exercising a bit longer, or going where few ever go to improve their writing: the dictionary.”
Sure, reading books can help with learning vocabulary and improving language skills but only a dictionary can build your word base (that pesky skill that allows one to speak and write well and, diversely). Dictionaries provide so much more than just words: pronunciation, history, evolution. Even the newest lexicon is included to provide readers and perusers with so much more than JUST a word.
“You can read War and Peace or Lord of the Rings (both excellent books by the way) until your face turns blue. Yet you won’t ever learn the word axinomancy (the placement of an ax, hatchet or saw into the ground or stump of tree).”
What’s interesting is that I learned, in reading Isaiah’s article, that dictionaries have evolved from being prescriptive (telling us how to use the book) to being descriptive (how people use language) – big difference. I clearly remember all the hubbub around the word ain’t and how it really wasn’t a word (though it is and has been for some time). There was a saying in our neighborhood (and probably in many other neighborhoods as well) – “Ain’t ain’t a word. If ain’t ain’t a word…well, I forget the rest of it…too long ago. But you get the point, since ain’t has been included in the dictionary since the 18th century!
“Instead of rushing through the dictionary to find sophisticated or bizarre words, take the book page by page — revel in the experience. Write the words down, understand them, and only after that can you continue to the next page. Unless you have a photographic memory, you‘ll likely forget some, if not most of these words. But this isn’t the point of writing out a dictionary. The point is to gain recognition and a real feel for words you never even knew existed.”
Personally, one of my favorite words (which I learned from perusing said book) is obsequious and I do like to use it in conversation. As a child, I was obsessed with pronouncing and spelling pneumonosilicovolcanoconiosis. I can’t remember how or why I locked on to it. At the time, it was one of the LONGEST words I’d memorized, aside from supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which every kid in the neighborhood knew (thanks, Mary Poppins!).
I’ll let Isaiah finish making the point for me:
“But as a writer, the dictionary allowed me to lock onto words that struck my fancy. “Videlicet” and “autodidactic” are two words I continue to use in my conversations and more importantly, my writing.
You’re bound to find a few words that will become staples in your writing.
Start with writing out 10 words a day. You can go with an “a through z” approach or flip to random pages. Either way, make sure you get your 10 words in.”
Now go dust off that big old book or bookmark Webster’s online dictionary and get your words ON.
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