Monday, February 19, 2024

I recently used an honest-to-goodness print dictionary

The other day I was reading an online article that described someone as "magisterial," one of many words for which I think I know the definition but am never quite sure.

I instinctively opened a new tab on my browser and was getting ready to Google "magisterial" when I happened to glance to my right. There, sitting on the bottom shelf of the small bookcase in my office, was the 2006 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

I'm talking about a bound, printed dictionary. Not some sort of electronic tool, but a hefty tome of more than 2,000 pages, the likes of which you could find in virtually every classroom when I was growing up.

Rather than consulting Mr. Google for the 20th time that day, I instead picked up the dictionary. And man, it was heavy. There were several pounds of words in there, everything from "a" (the logical first entry) to "zyzzyva" (which as you know is "any of the various tropical American weevils of the genus Zyzzyva, often destructive to plants").

I found "magisterial" on page 1051, just under "Maginot" and right above "magisterium."

The American Heritage people offered up three somewhat differing definitions, but only one made sense in context: "Sedately dignified in appearance or manner: 'She would appear on the porch and reign over the street in magisterial beauty.'"

Which is pretty much what I thought it meant, but it was good to get confirmation.

The last time I remember diving heavily into a print dictionary was in 6th grade (1981-82), when a vocabulary assignment from Mrs. Schwarzenberg forced us to crack open the musty old Webster's that sat on a small table in the Mapledale Elementary School library.

(Honestly, I think we used that dictionary as much to look up words like "penis" and "flatulence" than to decipher legitimate vocabulary words.)

Now, believe me when I say I am a champion of technology and progress. I embrace the new and innovative without so much as a backward glance when it comes to home entertainment devices, artificial intelligence, and all manner of electronic gizmos and gadgets.

But there was a nostalgic part of me that really enjoyed flipping through a print dictionary and finding the meaning of a word that had stumped me.

It was slower than Google, but in the end it had the same result and somehow felt...purer? Is that the word I want? More authentic?

It's a silly thought, I know. Who cares how I got the definition as long as I got there? What makes one method better than another?

Nothing, I suppose. I just didn't realize how much I missed 10-pound, 2,000-page dictionaries.

It made me happy that I've lugged this particular one with me from job to job and office to office for so many years.

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