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I'm the very definition of a dictionary lover

"You keep a dictionary by your bed?" my friend asks in an "I cannot believe it" voice, as if my little old paperback Merriam-Webster were a flying purple-polka-dotted Pekinese puppy.

"You never know when you might run into a word you don't know." My tone is sheepish (SHE-pish\ adj. BASHFUL, TIMID; esp: embarrassed by consciousness of a fault) as I wave at my stacks of bedtime reading material.

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I don't mention that the Merriam-Webster is just the tip of an iceberg of Websters, American Heritages, Cambridges, and more. When some people mention model and year, evidently they're speaking of cars. I tend to think in dictionary terms: a 1966 Webster College Edition, rather than a 1964 Ford Fairlane.

I have at least one dictionary in most rooms of the house. One of the living-room dictionaries is an elderly gray Webster's Collegiate I snatched up with a gasp of delighted recognition at a yard sale.

When Craig suggests we pass it on to a used bookstore, I bristle. "It is just like the one I had in fourth-grade! Exactly. The one Mrs. Hawkins used for that dictionary game. You know...."

My husband nods hurriedly, fervently hoping to forestall the millionth retelling of my dictionary-game story.

Mrs. Hawkins opened the book on my lifelong dictionary obsession. This is how her fourth-grade classroom game was played: We each had a big hard-bound gray dictionary.

Mrs. Hawkins shouted a word, for example "raucous." We'd flip raucously through our dictionaries. The first one to find "raucous" read the definition aloud. That person was supposedly the winner, but a slower-thumbed student might stumble upon some mighty astounding words.

Words such as "vainglorious," if she were far afield. Or "rattletrap" (which she might use later to describe the family Ford), or "rasher" (all the better to [attempt to] dazzle her mother over a few bacon strips the next morning).

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When Mrs. Hawkins first introduced the dictionary game, I was a slow word finder. Eventually, I could home in on a word in just a few page flippings. But, although winning made me feel triumphant, meandering was a thousand times more satisfying.

What I don't tell my friend today is that I read some of these aloud to Craig: "Did you know 'chapfallen' means 'having the lower jaw hanging loosely'?"

It's a measure of my good taste in men that Craig always manages to at least appear fascinated.

Mrs. Hawkins's dictionary game influenced what I bought with the crisp five-dollar bill my Aunt Edwina gave me when I graduated from high school: a used, hefty red hard-covered "Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language."

"What?" squawked my high school best friend. "You bought an old dictionary? You're very odd."

I muttered, "Additional to what is usual," after a quick flip through the O's of my prized purchase. Maybe she had a point, but I'm guessing she doesn't use her high-school graduation gift every day, as I do.

Along with my Websters, Scrabble dictionaries, crossword-puzzle dictionaries, rhyming dictionaries, dictionaries of names, and so on, I own some dictionaries on CD, and several links to dictionary sites reside in my computer's "favorites" folders.

But for the most part, I say "Bah!" to the electronic versions of my favorite books. Sure, you can look up a word, but you can't prowl through its neighborhood, excavating words you never knew existed. So, what fun is that?

No one understands why I have two dictionaries in the living room, seven in my writing room, two in Craig's den, one in the bedroom, and one in the hallway ... or why I keep an equal assortment of dictionary relatives such as thesauruses. I frequently stumble across words I can't find in some of my dictionaries.

Each of my beloved references has a distinctive personality. Modern words such as "modem" aren't in my older texts. But I could no more get rid of my old dictionaries than I could toss an old friend.

I said no one understands my dictionary fixation. That isn't true. My husband bought me a present a couple of years ago that not only dazzles me yet, but also says (as most great gifts do), "I know you." It is a gorgeous, humongous, 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary ... the ultimate passageway to a cozy afternoon of word window-shopping and word-family-tree browsing.

Craig is a man who realizes that a dictionary is not only what my Merriam-Webster calls "a reference book containing words usu. alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses," but is also something his wife will never get enough of.

Mrs. Hawkins, you would've loved him.


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