by Flower Conroy
Poet Laureate of Key West
How Big’s Your Dictionary?
At a library book sale last March an older gentleman asked me, “What are you going to do with that?” referring to the 3 ¾-inch-thick Random House Dictionary of the English Language, copyright 1971.
I clutched against my chest. “Read it,” I retorted, half-perplexed what intentions he thought I might have with the bone-colored, gold lettered tome. “Oh,” he replied; “I thought you were going to use it to hold open a door.”
I admit, “Read it” was a sassy answer for I intended to peruse the book; to randomly flip through its musty pages that I might discover new old words. I’ve always had a fetish for archaic language and vintage books. Other prized lexicons in my collection include: a 5-inch-thick Unabridged Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, circa 1956, with its spine-breaking 2000+ pages of entries, not including front and back matter; Discriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (with categories such as “Hand Tools,” “Electronics,” and “Human Body and Mind”); Dictionary of Anagrams (“gasper, gapers, grapes, parges, sparge”); Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase (“Dizzy Age: Elderly. Makes the spectator giddy to think of the victim’s years—generally of a maiden…”); Dictionary of Geological Terms (hourglass valley; ice island; spoil banks); The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (not enough room to swing a cat; jump the gun; straw in the wind); and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Gromboolian Plains; Phantastico; Wisdom Kingdom).
I love getting lost in these pages. I love stumbling upon the delicate illustrations that lead me down rabbit holes: here’s a figure of triangles and circles exemplifying how eclipses work (now I’m thinking of an orrery of polished stones); here’s a morion (“an open helmet of the 16th and early 17th centuries, worn by common soldiers and usually having a flat or turned-down brim and a crest from front to back—which makes me think shark); and here is the theodolite, with its constituent parts (telescope, illuminating mirror for reading altitudes, horizontal level, reflector for collimation level, leveling screw, illuminating mirror for reading azimuths, circular level, and eyepiece for optical centering), that one would use to establish, with precision, horizontal and sometimes vertical angles in basic surveying. And while it may be harder for me to work theodolite into a poem or everyday conversation, capturing what the word conjures in my mind—a ghost ship at the end of a street where water and road meet as horizon—seems to be stirring in my mind something of the metaphoric.
It’s exciting how all the words are literally connected to one another, contained between bindings—and yet can seem worlds apart: “algae” and “algebra.” Or how through juxtaposition “entail” adjoins “entangle,” “listing” abuts “listless” and “little black ant” sits beside “little blue heron.” I love the turning of phrases, the idea of language being frozen in time in ink on the page—and that through the physical object of the book, one can return to language; and dare I say—open doors?