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Old Dictionaries, Old Meanings

22 February 2009


low tech writer

These essays are now also available in book form, printed on real paper


I use the dictionary on my laptop daily, usually to check whether I am using a word correctly. But I’m missing out when I don’t use my bookshelf dictionaries. My favorites are the old Oxford dictionaries: I have several in various sizes. In 1990, I joined the Book of the Month Club for the sole purpose of getting a free copy of the two volume Compact Oxford English Dictionary, that miracle of mid 20th century publishing that shrunk 13 volumes containing all the words of the English language (at the time of the original publication, circa 1930)) down to two massive volumes. It had four of the original pages printed on each page, and it came with a magnifying glass. I often have one of these volumes on a music stand by my desk, where I can refer to it easily. The music stand is very strong.

I know that my OED is outdated. The latest version, the Second Edition of the OED, is twenty volumes and may be the last version to be printed: the English language is growing too fast, and somehow it’s easier to admit such additions to the language as, “aerobicized”, “celebutante”, and “blog”, if they will never be bound in a book. Yes, I will always use computers for research: there is just no way for any library to replicate what a computer can do, let alone a personal library. And yet, there is no way for any computer to fully replicate the experience of looking at a page in a book.

Some years ago, I was invited to co-teach a class on “Passion” in my church. I knew the reason my pastor had chosen the topic: to inspire excitement and commitment for the faith. One of the first things I did, even before looking at scripture, was to open my OED and look the word up. I was surprised (as was the group of people gathered for the class) to learn that the principal definition of the word, as listed in the OED, was “to suffer”, and that the principal historical usage was specifically in reference to the suffering of Christ on the cross (Mel Gibson’s movie had not yet come along to restore the context for the word). Suffering is an aspect of passion entirely lost in modernity.

Here is the first definition offered up when I type “passion” into my computer’s dictionary:


Noun. 1. strong and barely controllable emotion : a man of impetuous passion. See note at emotion.

  • a state or outburst of such emotion: oratory in which he gradually works himself up into a passion
  • intense sexual love: their all-consuming passion for each other; she nurses a passion for Thomas
  • an intense desire or enthusiasm for something: the English have a passion for gardens
  • a thing arousing enthusiasm: modern furniture is a particular passion of Bill’s

Barely controllable emotion? An outburst? Sex? Are the English really only passionate about gardens? These are the things that pass for passion in our anemic society. When we hear the word passion today, we mainly imagine the strong desires that precede and accompany sex. What a rip off. Not sex, mind you, just that the feelings associated with sex have become the marker for love between two people when in fact (and in history) the thing that really inspires love is when a person is willing to suffer (even die) for another. Am I worth suffering for? Can I inspire such abandon? Sex is not passion. Real passion, if you ever see it today, is a thing that can bring two people together and keep them together for a lifetime. Sex may result.

My computer dictionary fails me here. But my computer dictionary doesn’t only fail in the way it defines the word; it fails by only telling me what it thinks I want to know. My OED, on the other hand reveals many more layers of meaning than I can grasp, simply because it’s all there for discovering on the printed page. For all the hype around computer hypertext, links only work when someone thinks to include them. My computer dictionary only displays the definition of the word I typed in, and nothing else. On the other hand, when I looked up the entry for “passion” in the OED, I could see a whole community of words related to my original search, just by letting my eye wander. What did I discover? That the word “passive”, just down the page, comes from the same Latin root as “passion” and has the same root meaning: to suffer. This opened up a whole world of meaning to me, and to the students in that class. Two kinds of suffering: one active, chosen, intentional, and accepted; another experienced because of a choice not to act. Beautiful. This is precisely the kind of thing that makes me love language. My daughter is coming under the influence also.

Zoe under the influence

When I worked as the senior writer for a tech company (our first product was a search engine, launched around the same time Google launched theirs … look up “bad timing” in the dictionary of your choice), the first thing I asked for was a dictionary for my empty bookshelf. None of the young, Internet-savvy executives understood why I wanted a book. I think I told them I preferred the feel of real paper to using my computer as a reference tool. I might also have made some attempt to convince them that the printed dictionary was superior, or at least that it was more reliable (in 1999) than the on-line lexicons. They might have reconsidered whether I was suited to working at an Internet company, but they bought me the dictionary. Years later, I smiled when I read that one of Google’s first writers had the identical interaction with his bosses when he came to work: his insistence on using a printed dictionary; their disbelief that anyone still did. This may be the only thing my old company (now defunct) had in common with Google.

These days, it might make sense to describe me as passionate about the OED, about printed books, about old stuff. But I don’t know. Am I willing to suffer or die for these things I’m writing about? Maybe not. It’s closer to the truth to say that I don’t want to suffer the result of passively embracing so-called technological advances that slowly erode the meaning of things.