Photo by Anne Fishbein
THE NEW DICTIONARY CAME THE OTHER day. It's not exactly the one I wanted — that, ideally, would have been a more recent version of Webster's New International Dictionary, last updated in its third, 1993, edition. That Webster's, with its half-million entries, is a pretty formidable thing and settles most arguments at the Weekly — the sheer menace of its bulk, wielded in the hands of a determined proofreader, is enough to deter the most obdurate writer from etymological debates. It's the peacekeeper, if not a widow-maker.
Instead, I had bought the blue-jacketed New Oxford American Dictionary which, at 2,023 pages, is still pretty muscular, although its cover's clean lines and the book's courteously large type make it seem both vigorous and chiseled, like Tony Blair in a Euro-cut suit, while the Webster's — also blue-jacketed — reminds you of a New York City beat cop.
The Oxford is friendly and modish in other ways, featuring a collection of proverbs, a roll call of various halls of fame — not just athletes, but also Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees — along with photographs of both Clintons and both Bushes, Madonna and Michael Jordan. It also includes the kind of sweetly archaic illustrations we grew up with in elementary school (vibraphone, p. 1880; periwig, p. 1273).
This purchase was no indulgence. I desperately needed a new dictionary. The one I'd been using since 1972, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, was 32 years old and seemed to have been published barely in time to acknowledge Richard Nixon's presidency. My RHD's glossy white paper cover gave up the ghost long ago, as did its publisher, TV game-show personality Bennett Cerf. I'm keeping it, though, because it's smudged with the fingerprints of sentiment, and besides, you can never throw out a birthday gift — even if, technically, my college friends had given me Blue Chip stamps, which I redeemed for the book.
THE FIRST WORD I LOOKED UP IN THE Oxford was fuck, as I had done in 1972 when I got my RHD. This was, in the days of Blue Chip stamps and Bennett Cerf, the most reliable way to reference how “contemporary,” how relevant a dictionary was. Sydney I. Landau, writing in Verbatim, claims that the 1969 American Heritage Dictionary was the first to print and define the F word, followed, in 1973, by the eighth edition of the Merriam-Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. Fuck was nowhere to be found in my RHD, where it should have appeared between fuchsite and fucoid. As Kurt Vonnegut's 1966 New York Times review noted, while the RHD staff hadn't “included enough of the words to allow a Pakistani to decode Last Exit to Brooklyn, or Ulysses . . . they have made brave beginnings, dealing, wisely I think, with the alimentary canal.”
My very first dictionary, of course, did no better. This was a battered Webster's that my parents kept in a bookcase filled with hunting memoirs and all the Volume “A” encyclopedias my mother brought back from Safeway and the A&P. I didn't like this book because it had no jacket and its burgundy covers spoke of neglect and resentment — while its binding was the color of wine, its pages smelled as vinegary as a Lenten missal. Worse, the hair and tailoring of its female illustrations fixed its publication somewhere in the mid- to late-1950s, making it, to me, something that belonged in the Brontë parsonage.
The closest this book got to the F word was funk, yet even seeing that word gave me a little prepubescent jolt, as though I had now navigated much closer to the dark, musky secret of what sex was all about, no thanks to my parents' fumbling explanations. In time, I would stumble upon coitus and climax and, like a Blechley Park cryptographer, put these and other forensic terms together to eventually crack the code of sex — at least as far as Webster's was concerned.
Too late, the New Oxford has plenty on the F word — it is, in fact, a veritable fuck book, as some guys call porn magazines. There are helpful entries for “go fuck yourself” (phrase), “fuck up” (“a person who has a tendency to make a mess of things”), along with “fuckhead” (“a stupid or contemptible person”) and “fuckwit” (“often used as a general term of abuse”). I like my new dictionary and will probably keep it 32 years, long after its cover has disappeared and its pages acquire that musty, used-bookstore smell.
THE IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER about dictionaries (and I mean the kind you balance in your lap while arguing with an editor on the phone, the kind your cat jumps onto to look out the window) is that they are not almanacs or software, they cannot be updated by the year or upgraded by the hour. Like parents, they age and gaps eventually appear in the knowledge they offer. And today or 32 years from now when we look back upon their quaint illustrations, dead statesmen and obsolete inventions, we find ourselves gazing upon a time when we did not know what we know now. If there was a yesterday when we cursed dictionaries for not revealing the wonderfully dirty secrets of the adult and adulterous world, today we sometimes wish we could shout across the gulf of time and warn our faulty teachers, whether books or parents, about the words and worlds they could not define.