A Writer's Reluctant Parting With a Worn Old Webster's
Today, on my birthday, my daughter replaced my 1948 edition of Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary with a more recent 10th edition - copyright 1993. Please understand that I have had other dictionaries since 1948, notably the Shorter Oxford English, and a paperback desk copy of unknown origin.
But like Goldilocks, I found one too big and one too small, and so the 1948 edition always came along wherever I moved because it seemed "just right."
It was the first tangible prize awarded to me for writing; and in 1949 when I was 14 years old, it took on a significance slightly larger than the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes rolled together. On the blank binding page I inscribed in my very best handwriting (hoping it would look as if it had been done by a professional): "In recognition of winning an achievement key and certificate of merit from the Denver Post National Scholastics Awards for International Letter Writing." The achievement key and certificate of merit disappeared long ago, but the dictionary remains a symbol of word power to this day.
The binding is badly broken, and the binding page with its puerile inscription came loose just this year. Tattered and torn, it is held firmly in place now by a piece of masking tape. Just overleaf is a picture of Noah Webster and his signature splendidly inscribed below. My 1948 copy gets no respect because it is old and ugly, its pages thin and discolored, and its once gold-inked cover indecipherable to anyone but me. But I cannot put it out to pasture without this one last tribute as a warning never to judge any book, least of all my dictionary, by its cover.
One of my favorite sections has not been duplicated in the 10th edition. It is "A Pronouncing Vocabulary of Common English Christian Names." When I discovered that section, I realized that names had meanings. My own name, Dorothy, meant "gift of God." My sister's name, Barbara, was exactly right, I decided. Barbara meant "foreign," "strange," as in barbaric.
My old dictionary also taught me foreign words and phrases. It alerted me to the cognates of words and meanings, which served me well in vocabulary tests and gave me certain insights into English and German writers who insisted on writing partially in French.
In the 1948 edition the "new words section" included: air condition, anodize, ad lib, Bronx cheer, bucket seat, atomic energy, nylon, Quonset hut, polystyrene, and radar. All are now comfortably ensconced in the body of the 10th edition.
It may be significant that there are fewer abbreviations in my 1948 edition than in my 1993. This is the age of shortcuts leading to alphabet soup designations. FRM, GDP, DWI, AA, AMVETS, and NORAD have replaced S of Sol (Song of Solomon), R.P.O. (Railway Post Office), R.M.S. (Royal Mail Steamship), OUAM (Order of United American Mechanics), and IOF (Independent Order of Foresters).
In my humble estimation, a significant omission from the 1993 edition is the "Vocabulary of Rhymes." Having no aspirations to become a poet, I was frequently forced to refer to this section whenever I was required to write a poem in my English classes. After I penned one line, the rest fell into place. For example: "When I have fears that I may cease to write," might be the first line. I would then look up all the possible rhymes for "write." There are 72 not including "write" itself. Eliminating the more prosaic possibilities such as "digit, sleight, wright, affright, alight, bedight, benight, acolyte, aconite, expedite, oversight, parasite, proselyte, and satellite," I am left with 58 choices.
When I have fears that I may cease to write,
as if devoured by all-consuming blight,
that overtakes my soul and urges it to flight,
can no one understand my plight?
With poetry like that, I was encouraged to try writing a novel. An agent has just sent me his guidelines, which specify the use of Merriam Webster's 10th edition dictionary for all manuscripts submitted. The reasons are obvious. It has a complete Handbook of Style, Reference for Documentation of Sources, Forms of Addresses, and all the words in the book are guaranteed to be spelled correctly.
In time this 10th edition will, no doubt, become as dog-eared as my 1948 edition. However, I will still be referring to my 1948, I feel sure, if only as a historical document - and of course if I ever need to find a rhyme for loyal, trusted, and friend.