The dictionary queen

Everyone has three vocabularies – the listening/reading one, the speaking one and the writing one. The speaking one is usually the smallest, the listening/reading one the largest. But for a writer, the writing vocabulary should, in my opinion, approach the listening/reading one in scope and flexibility. To that end, the dictionary and the thesaurus are, as far as I am concerned, essentials in any writer’s toolkit.

I had a small paperback abridged Roget for years and years, but in 2007 I bought the sixth edition of the original Roget’s Thesaurus. It’s heavy enough to qualify as a weapon. As for the other essential, I am the Dictionary Queen. A quick count of what I can see from my office chair shows me about thirty dictionaries. I know there are some lurking in other rooms of the house.

“Who needs all those dictionaries?” I hear you cry. “Isn’t one enough?”

Maybe for some it is. Not for me.

My workhorse is the Oxford English Dictionary. About thirty years ago I bought the microphotographed version for a hundred dollars. I know it’s out-of-date in terms of neologisms, but I hardly ever need to look one of those up. The Oxford came with a magnifying glass, which I didn’t need then but am ever so grateful for now.

When I’m writing for a publication that requires Canadian spelling, I use the Canadian Oxford Dictionary of Current English. I lean to the British spelling, being of that vintage when that was what was taught in Canadian schools, but apparently British spelling is no longer always Canadian spelling. Is it “program” or “programme”? So I check. (Both are given in the CODCE, in the same entry, but “program” is listed first. I don’t know if that’s because it’s the preferred use, or simply because it’s in alphabetical order.)

My third most-used dictionary is the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary. I don’t know how I’d manage without it. I have two others, but the Penguin is the one I’ve had longest, and it’s the one I turn to first. What if you need a rhyme for “aneurysm” – and who doesn’t? Choose from Spoonerism, plagiarism, mannerism and a dozen more.

My other dictionaries encompass slang, Cockney rhyming slang, medical terms, architectural terms, biological terms and literary terms. I have a dictionary of Canadian words, one of gardener’s Latin, a dictionary of anagrams and one of interjections, a couple of Irish terms and phrases, several dictionaries of history and biography and, at last count, four dictionaries of quotations, including Bartlett’s. You never know when you’re going to need the Irish word for bunny tail (“fud”) or a bit of cockney rhyming slang, me old china. (china plate = mate) Run me through a used-book store, a yard sale, anywhere books are to be found, and dictionaries stick to my fingers.

At a garage sale recently I found The Canadian Reader’s Dictionary. It was written for users whose mother tongue is something other than English, and defines 24,000 items from “a” (the indefinite article) to “Zulu” with a 1,490-word vocabulary. (The 1,490 words are listed in the back of the book.)

Of course I’m a word nerd – have been all my life. I’m in love with Standard Written English, but I also like slang, idiom and dialect. Perhaps that’s why I have this addiction to dictionaries.

On the other hand, I have four pair of shoes, only three of which see regular use. I’m sure there are those who wonder how I manage. But heck, what do I need a lot of shoes for? Any footwear is perfect for dictionary-shopping in!

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