Thursday 17 April 2008

Dear Dictionary

It's been a while since I did a Booking Through Thursday, usually because Thursday happens without me noticing... cunning, but true. Today was spent cataloguing auction catalogues (my first Full Level Cataloguing, and very attractive things to flick through, filled with paintings I can't afford and odd owl figurines I wouldn't want to) - then I went to a cake party (yum) and finally my Church Small Group had dinner together. The only thing I read today (aside from the auction catalogues) was my driving theory book... oh dear. Will tuck myself up with a good book soon.

Before I do, will turn my attention to this week's question:
I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before.
I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

Dictionaries! When I did my English Language section of my degree, one of my coursework pieces was on dictionaries - specifically the illustrative quotations which accompany definitions. It sounds dull... but was absolutely fascinating, and really fun. Sadly, when my computer decided that its hard drive was a little blasé and wiped itself, my essays disappeared. And that was one of the ones I hadn't printed, except to hand in to The Powers That Be, so I shall never again know as much about dictionaries as I did then.

What I do know, however, is that I have a dictionary to hand whenever I'm reading a book. Well, not to hand - but on the shelf, and it is referred to often. sometimes offers a hand, but there's nothing quite like skimming through a real live dictionary, and having a sentence make sense.

Oddly, and irritatingly, there are certain words which I read over and over again, and look up over and over again, and which refuse to stick in my mind. Of course, none spring to mind now... but for a long time 'importunate' and 'sedulous' were two of these. They'd crop up time and again in books I read, and every time I was stumped... now, eventually, I know what they mean. But then there are words like 'vicariously', the meaning of which I always *thought* I knew, but turns out I didn't...

Howsabout you? Do you ignore the words you don't understand, or immediately scurry away to a dictionary, or note it down for later? Or are you just better than me, and haven't encountered an unfamiliar word for years?!


  1. I remember finding out that 'apocryphal' didn't mean anything like what I thought it did.
    The same with 'forensic', but then again, half the known world gets that one wrong ...
    I think the meanings of unusual words tend to stick better if those words are useful to you, so you could see yourself using them.

  2. Simon. I'm horrible at this. I say to myself, "I will jot this word down in a minute" and then don't, of course...and I come upon the same word again and think, "now this seems familiar." But that's only because I didn't know it last time either! If I have a dictionary handy, I like to try to guess based on context before I reach for it. In Les Miserables there was a French word, "prie dieu," for a piece of furniture. I thought prie might be related to prendre (to take) and I knew dieu was god, but I could not imagine what sort of furniture (other than a coffin) would "take me to God"... a kneeler of course! what fun. ~ ~ I'm sorry we won't have the benefit of reading your treatise on the dictionary. Deborah @ Exuberant Reader

  3. For a writer I am seriously BAD at remembering the true meanings of words, and often use them with a heigh-ho attitude, but I always look them up at final edit when I'm not 100% sure. The word that always beats me is 'bathetic'. I've looked it up a dozen times and still can't remember its meaning. My husband asked me the other day 'what does abstract mean?' and I had to go and look it up! Needless to say I often use it in writing, as I know that its use is 'right', but my knowledge of its defined meaning is dodgy! My spelling is none too hot these days either...... Thanks be to spell check (well, an English version).

  4. I am an obsessive looker-upper. Is it really sad that I actually have a dictionary next to my bed for this very purpose?

    My spelling, despite this, is still atrocious.

  5. I must admit I am pretty bad at looking up unknown words when reading for pleasure - I tend to infer meaning from the words around the unknown.

    However, when I am writing in my job and precision is essential I tend to spend a lot of time with the dictionary open making sure what I am saying is what I mean to say.

  6. I've been wondering/wandering in this area recently. I'm reading French for pleasure and have only intermediate skills. I wonder how often to stop to look up a word, whether to go with the flow, whether words are 'faux amis'. Is this what it was like when I was expanding my reading skills as a child?

  7. The trouble with those words that you really thought you knew the meaning of is that you always discover you were wrong at the moment of greatest possible embarrassment - one of the reasons I try to always look words up.

  8. I have more trouble with pronunciation than with knowing what a word means. (Frankofile -- I teach French for a living, and I tell my students NOT to stop and look words up unless they can't get the meaning of the entire sentence because of the gap.) And yes, this causes the greatest possible embarrassment: my family still mocks me for pronouncing "awry" AW-ree instead of a-RYE. Well, I'd never heard it said! :)

  9. I ask 'a vicar I know' of course - the only trouble is that he asks me too!
    The trouble with misunderstanding words is that each time you read them you reinforce the wrong meaning.
    Ah, all those good intentions!

  10. Sometimes, I stick a post- it note inside the book I'm reading and jot down the word and page number so I can look for it in the dictionary at a later time. Of course, this system falls apart if I don't happen to have a pen handy!

  11. Other than those darn typos that pop up occasionally, I've always been a good speller - even in elementary school where I was so bad at everything else. Even so, there's a dictionary propped up on the floor near the computer (right by my foot) and I do make use of it. I am so pleased to finally remember how to spell 'excerpt' that I use it willy-nilly just because I can. :-)

    Now, "...then I went to a cake party (yum)..." - aaaand, what kind of cake did you have? :-)

  12. I'm curious, what did you think 'vicariously' meant? I ask because funnily enough, that's one of the first words I remember coming across and looking up in a dictionary. Also, it keeps cropping up in conversation all the time. The other day I asked two friends if they knew the meaning. One said he was pretty sure it meant "in a carefree manner" (completely off the mark, of course), while the other wondered whether it originally came from "vicar" (I was a little surprised to find out from the OED that it did).

    Briefly, here are two things I've been doing to try to improve my vocabulary:
    1) making lists of new words I come across in a particular context, e.g. reading a particular author - F.Scott Fitzgerald is amazing for this, he uses some quite wacky words:
    10 interesting words
    2) playing on - such a good concept, and the words are really well chosen.


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