This is odd. I’m going to do something not often done: review a dictionary.
Bear with me here. It is my fervent belief that a writer is only as good as the books on his reference shelf; much the same as a carpenter, however talented, needs proper tools in order to do anything besides theorize about building something.
Now, a reference shelf: it should have more than just reference books, don’t you think? Shouldn’t it be more than what it’s been, as classically defined? It should contain those books that have affected us the most as people, let alone as writers. Mine contains books like Where the Red Fern Grows, and The Pacific and Other Stories by Mark Helprin, and The Burnished Blade by George Schoonover. A reference shelf doesn’t just contain collated facts, then, as I’m defining it. But, and this is a big but, it should contain, in order to be all it can be, several dictionaries, thesauri, style guides, and other reference books. I’ll detail some of those on coming Fridays.
For now, though it sounds absurd, I’m going to write about a monument to the English language: the work of Noah Webster in the nineteenth century. My particular volume dates to 1890 and is unabridged. I swear, and I’m not joking, one could sit down to read this thing for sheer entertainment. It’s that good.
Here’s a list of some words you’ll probably not find very often. Besmear. Canoness. Dialist. Inflexure. Prepositure. Smeeth. Yend. And before you dismiss them as entirely unusable in today’s greasy world, remember that they are part of the foundation upon which our communications rest today, whether written or spoken. That, and it certainly helps to know, if one is a writer, a little more etymology; it tends to give scale and depth to your work. It’s not just for historical novelists, in other words. It’s not just for writers either, I’d argue. It’s for all of us who use the language.
In regard to etymology, take a word like infidel, for instance. In the 1890 edition of Webster’s unabridged, it’s actually defined, partially, as “One who is without faith…unbelieving…a Mahommedan.” I find this to be highly instructive. And I learned something else: the root in Latin is infidelis, which can be readily translated as unfaithful, or literally, “not faithful.” Isn’t it amazing how history moves in currents, in and out, changing definitions, sometimes 180 degrees opposite. Then again, I suppose context is everything—but I love how pre-PC this thing is. There’s something insidious about politically correct thought isn't there (there’s actually nothing correct about it; again highly instructive), how it infects our language, the meanings of our words, twisting fact into fiction and fiction into fact. Where are the writers who have anything to say about this? Well…I’m one.
Looking through an old dictionary goes to show how important history really is. Forgive me for this last little bit, but I’d like to point something out. I love writing. I love that lots of other people love it too—heck, it’s such a dream job that sometimes writers write characters, even protagonists, who just happen to be writers. These are bestsellers. Weird. Anyway, I love it. But I never want to take it for granted. In other words, I think we writers have a large responsibility to posterity, since our work is in print. We have to master our trade or craft to the best of our abilities. We can’t just go off half-cocked and start writing books with no working knowledge of grammar, punctuation, or for God’s sake spelling. We can’t do that and still call ourselves writers. I don’t think so. Yes, there’s room to develop, and take your time at it, but start today; now. And yes, find and hire a great editor, but learn and retain what you learn along the way. I think we owe it to ourselves and our readers, however distant in future history they may yet be, to know what the hell we’re doing. We have a responsibility to know what words mean. We use so many of them. Again, it’s all about the right tools.