When's the last time you looked up the word "dictionary" in the dictionary?
I guess that'd be slightly like looking into a mirrorful of mirrors, but on reading Ange Mlinko's review of new books of poems in the January issue of Poetry , I thought it might be helpful; as she writes, "Rare it is to find such a neat convergence in the dead center of two new collections: both Mary Kinzie's California Sorrow and Robert Pinsky's Gulf Music intersect at the poet's oracle, the dictionary." What poet doesn't love an oracle?

So, bookworm that I am, I turned to the office copy of the exceptionally oracular Oxford English Dictionary, whose citations for the D-word were quite entertaining. One is from Emerson, who sagely reflected that "Neither is the dictionary a bad book to read... it is full of suggestions, - the raw material of possible poems and histories." But his contemporary, the Congregationalist pastor R.W. Dale (in a sermon published in 1858), remarked ruefully that "A dictionary is not merely a home for living words; it is a hospital for the sick; it is a cemetery for the dead." That's certainly akin to Kinzie contemplating "words as ghosts of all who used them but are passed away," or Pinsky musing about the word thing: "the very word . . . is an artifact, with a secret shroud or aura." At some point, the dictionary seems to have gotten a bit of a bad reputation, as in this phrase the OED cites from an 1818 letter of Mary Russell Mitford's: "after the fashion of certain dictionary-mongers who ring the changes upon two words..." or this, from Orwell's Burmese Days: "Have you swallowed a dictionary? ... We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well." Some citations even illustrate the idea of someone being a dictionary, as in this 1893 cite: "Mr. Edwards is a perfect walking dictionary..."
It's a sobering thought that we didn't really have English-language dictionaries till the 16th century, and though there were some in the 17th, it wasn't until Samuel Johnson's famous Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 that anyone systematically tried to correlate particular English words with the way they were actually used in literature. It probably took that long because there's something irresolvably slippery about the idea of looking up the meaning of words in the a book made out of them: if you look up "word" in Johnson's dictionary, you find definitions like "language" and "a single part of speech." Fortunately, you also get his own marvelous citations, like Bacon's "If you speak three words, it will three times report you the three words." And if all that's not puzzling enough, Mlinko notes that since neither Kinzie nor Pinsky "identifies the particular dictionary they are quoting" in their new poems, "they really do mystify the concept, which has a vexed history of its own—there is no 'dictionary,' there are only dictionaries."

Originally Published: January 9th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. January 11, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Hi Don - I seemed to remember that Woolf had something to say about dictionaries. Sure enough, I found this essay, which begins:
    In 1938 Virginia Woolf started to compile her own "Supplement to the Dictionary of the English Language," but gave up after two words. The third entry is simply a question mark, a lexical gap representing "A word for those who put living people into books."
    (The words are "straddlebug" and "peeker.")

  2. January 11, 2008
     Don Share

    Great find, Mary, and great example, too!
    "Straddlebug" was a pretty common word throughout the 19th century but seems to have vanished by the middle of the 20th. "Peeker" wouldn't get a separate entry in most dictionaries, but it turns up in the 1920 tome Allen's Synonyms and Antonyms by Frederic Sturges Allen, who was a dictionary editor himself. Unsurprisingly (compared to "straddlebug," anyhow), it just meant "peeping Tom;" no wonder it disappeared. And no wonder Woolf gave up! If you'd like some further lexical entertainment, check out H.L. Mencken's The American Language.

  3. January 11, 2008
     Elizabeth Stigler

    I recently attended a lively lecture on dictionaries by Erin McKean, a young "Dictionary Evangelist" (her term) and the chief consulting editor for american dictionaries at Oxford University Press. I hope I'm remembering correctly when I describe the thesis of her talk as roughly this--That a "true" working dictionary is a living record, i.e. it accounts for the way people currently use language vs. what is technically correct. Hence, Mlinko's comment on the evolution of the word "thing" in relation to Pinsky's latest book ( http://poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/12/some_debts.html#more ). What's interesting about language is that it is not cast in stone, the working meaning is found in the way people use the tool as opposed to more normative understandings. A living, breathing poetry in dictionaries! Whoa, that sentence is way too lame for an exclamation point.
    For further reading, I would check out her books:
    Weird and Wonderful Words
    More Weird and Wonderful Words
    Totally Weird and Wonderful Words
    That's Amore (about words as well)
    An aside: McKean also hosts a great daily blog called A Dress A Day, on vintage dresses, here: http://www.dressaday.com/dressaday.html