Monday, April 9, 2012


There is an old game that consists of asking, “if you were stranded on a desert island with only one book, what book would you want?” If “book” can be interpreted as “publication,” my immediate answer would be “the Oxford English Dictionary,” That might be cheating. It is difficult to imagine my raft floating up on the shore with the twenty volumes of the second edition in a crate. Maybe the compact two-volume edition with tiny print and the magnifying glass in the little drawer at the top of the container might be plausible, though.
Dictionaries are my favorite texts. A few years ago, one of my graduate students was working in Thailand and made the mistake of asking if there was anything I’d like for her to bring back for me, thinking maybe I’d ask for a small memento. I asked if she could bring me a copy of the latest edition of the Phachanahnukrom Ratchabahntityasathahn (Dictionary of the Royal Institute, more or less phonemically transliterated). She did find one and hauled it back in her luggage.
We dictionary aficionados might be considered, for good or ill, as lepidopterists of a peculiar sort. We like colorful, flittering, free-flying things pinned down so that we can know them. A dictionary gives us a special kind of knowledge of the words that fly around us and through our minds. Reading through one of these books, I like to think about the complicated nature of these winged creatures. Words are self-contained aesthetic objects; they point backwards in time; they point sideways to each other; and they point outward to mysteries beyond themselves.
Unusual, antiquated words are my weakness. This is probably one reason I loved Travels in Arabia Deserta, a  book that is best read with a copy of the unabridged OED close at hand. But the dictionary helps one appreciate even ordinary, everyday vocabulary.
I open the OED at random (that’s something you can’t do with the online version – you also can’t take it on your non-wired desert island). The word I see is “mimic.” It is a clustering of sounds that begin with both lips pressed together, then to an opening and slight spreading of the lips, back to lips pressed, back to the opening, and then ends in a breathy stop at the back of the throat. This is a tiny piece of music. Then I look at the way we represent these sounds on paper. There’s a rolling figure, a vertical line with a dot, the rolling figure, another dotted vertical line, and a semi-circle open to the right. It is also a fragment of visual art. The more I look at it, the stranger this everyday item becomes.
At the top of the passage on this word, I can see that this object that exists today in its own right as music and visual art, carries a history that I evoke every time I speak it or hear it. The noun “mime” is the origin of the adjective and verb “mimic.” It comes from the “…classical Latin mīmus< ancient Greek μμος , of unknown origin, possibly a loan; both major strands of meaning (performer and performance) are recorded in classical Latin and ancient Greek.” Possibly a loan. So, even the ancient Greeks may have taken the word from some other ancient language, and the dictionary makes me aware of the vast reaches of time within this simple word.
Ever since Ferdinand de Saussure’s students published his Cours de linguistique générale (General Course in Linguisitcs) three years after he died in 1913, linguists have recognized that language can be considered either synchronically or diachronically. That is, one can look at its historically development or its structure at a given point in time. That is true of individual words, as well as the structure of language. When I looked up the word above at random in the OED, other words made up not only the etymology, but every part of the description and definition. Every word in the book points at other words in the book, and the meanings of each derive from the meanings of the others. The one word I look up is defined by other words, and one of those may strike my imagination and I’ll follow its definition, in a chain that could, theoretically, lead me through the entire dictionary. When I look up a word in a foreign-language dictionary, often I’ll find that within its definition are words that I don’t know or don’t completely grasp and I’ll search for the meanings that give the meaning.
I think the fact that meanings live in the total play of meanings was what Ludwig Wittgenstein was getting at in his later work, when he rejected the picture theory of language in favor of language as a game. But it seems to me that the game approach to words makes them too enclosed in their own system of play.  In a sense, the dictionary is self-contained because each term we look up connects us to other terms we look up. But the dictionary also points outside of itself. All of the illustrations of historical usages come from other books and all of those other books have their own histories. The words themselves don’t just mean what the other words say, but they come from a world that is pre-verbal and enable us to live in a world that is extra-verbal. That, I think, is the ultimate mystery, the world beyond all words that is the origin and ultimate reference of all dictionaries.

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