ONLY FOR LOVERS OF WORDS

By J. D. Hicks

 

libraryWhen I was a university student, I often went to the library. Even on a Friday or Saturday evening, I’d enjoy stalking books among the stacks. It may sound sinister or unhealthy, but I was merely a developing bibliophile.

Because I was a habitual user of the library, the staff knew me because I was the only person who regularly, indeed ever, borrowed a particular book: At 8” thick and weighing 9 pounds, Funk and Wagnall’s Unabridged Dictionary was not a tome to be taken lightly.

The first time I plopped the heavy Funk and Wagnall’s on the countertop at the front desk, the startled librarian surveyed the big pulpy block of erudition and observed that the huge book could not be checked out because it was a reference book.

I explained that I had found the giant dictionary in general circulation and that the checkout slip inside the green binding showed I could lawfully take it out for the normal checkout period. You can’t shoot a rocket higher than the heights of my elation as I lugged this Sequoia of books out of the library. In the coming months, I’d renew the dictionary many times, and in my one-room apartment, I’d scan the columns of small print for—

For the answers, I refer you to Mr. Stommes, my charming eighth-grade teacher, who required his students to locate and learn the definitions for weekly vocabulary lists. This taught me two lessons.

First, I discovered that if I ever hoped to broaden my knowledge of the English language, I needed to study it. Before Mr. Stommes, I had depended on my own guesswork or the offhand explanations of others for the meanings of words. I had never thought I needed to study the English language, because I had thought I owned it.

Even apart from words I was completely unfamiliar with, there were words on the vocab lists whose meanings I had previously guessed and used. After checking the dictionary for these words, however, I realized that my guesses had erred. (I recall at the time the word puberty suggested fearsome and forbidden sexuality. I never uttered the word above a whisper. Later I was relieved to learn it described a phase of human development and I hadn’t been using an obscenity.) I saw that if I wanted to achieve clarity when I read, wrote, or spoke, I had to consult the lexicon for reliable definitions.

The second lesson I learned was that words, even single words, could entertain me. I found that words could delight with humor as in borborygmus or oologize or enchant with sound as in glossolalia or sylvan or tintinnabulation or intrigue with meaning alone as in eschatology or psychopomp. Beginning in the eighth grade, I set aside my baseball cards, the stamps, the penny and dime collections.

By the time I entered the university, I was an experienced word collector. When I found a word I wanted to remember, I added it to my list. Like a bird fancier scanning tree branches for a new species to put on his life list, I searched for a new word perching on the line of a page, or I hunted them in the vast expanses of unabridged dictionaries such as Funk and Wagnall’s or Webster’s International.

I sought the novel, the exotic, the beautiful or plain, the melodious. Birders understand this, for they are outsiders in pursuit of an intangible reward. I am an outsider as well, but I am a worder and go wording in the inexhaustible English language. If you are a worder, I hope we meet someday on a quiet path somewhere among words.

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