Dictionary perils


WHEN I was a child I would sometimes go to the dictionary to look for mysterious words. These were never words like "deduce" or "obstinate," "sauerbraten" or "wadding."

These were almost always the kinds of words you hear bigger kids saying behind the garage, bigger kids who threaten you with injury if you mention in front of an adult that you heard those words from them. As a result I would frequently find myself in the bathroom with the old red-covered dictionary looking for a word like -- well, you know. And I could never find it.

Turns out I was born 20 years too early.

Now, of course, I know what all those words mean, and I have been known to use some of them if a truck pulls out suddenly in front of my car on an icy road.

But in keeping with long tradition I will not allow those younger than the age of consent to use them; in keeping with tradition, when a young person comes home trailing vulgarities like a purple print scarf, I have been known to say, "I will not have that in this house."

Turns out I was born 20 years too late.

We have a new dictionary, the first new one I've gotten since high school graduation, and my children have learned to use it almost overnight because of what it has inside, and I'm not talking about "subcutaneous" or "rigmarole."

All those words I couldn't find as a child, all those words I said would not appear in my house -- they're in here, on page 537, on page 1029, on page 1237, a whole slew of words I can look up in the dictionary but not discuss here, in what we like to call a family newspaper.

My dictionary has become a family dictionary. Several times TC have entered a room to find small boys crouched over it, their little eyes lit up as though they'd found the Rosetta Stone. "Go away," they say, "we're using the dictionary." From behind the closed door comes a ya-hoo: "It's in here!"

Before I stored the new dictionary between the box spring and the mattress I called Sol Steinmetz, executive editor of Webster's College Dictionary, and had an interesting conversation dominated by the kind of words once associated with dropping a hammer on your toe. Steinmetz said that even the Oxford English Dictionary includes vulgarities today.

"Let's not forget that a dictionary is a practical tool," said Steinmetz. "Its job is to tell you what something means. You see those R-rated movies -- every other word is . . . "

Here he used what his dictionary classifies as a v., interj., n. Vulgar. "It's abdicating the job of a dictionary to deny it," he added. He says the real innovation in this dictionary is the section at the back on Avoiding Sexist Language, and the evaluation of certain words, like honky ("slang: disparaging and offensive").

"Dictionaries are reflections of an age," Steinmetz said by way of conclusion. "The old taboos have been lifted."

This is a good thing for several reasons:

1. It teaches children to use and enjoy reference books. The only comparable exercise young people of my generation had was looking at the anatomy charts in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

2. It brings to an end those embarrassing questions about the exact meaning of terms learned from the kid at school with the older brothers, and expands vocabulary at the same time.

One vulgarity, for example, is defined as "a person who shirks responsibility and wastes time; malingerer." An opportunity for a child to regale friends with his foul mouth and simultaneously learn the meaning of "malingerer" is no small thing.

(This could backfire. A kid who habitually shouts "Malingerer! Malingerer!" is not going to have an easy life, even with an expanded vocabulary.)

3. Mystery is somewhat stripped from any word contained in the dictionary, even one classified as n. slang (vulgar). It has long been a parental theory that if you let children have enough of something, like Gummi Bears, they will soon tire of it.

This happens not to be true of Gummi Bears -- what do we think they are, idiots? -- but perhaps it is true of n. slang (vulgar). Even if it's not, they no longer have to learn their n. slang (vulgar) behind garages; they can learn it right here at home. With pronunciation keys.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad