Please Consult Your Dictionary…
I have spent junior school and most of my middle school years listening to this phrase. It was always lurking in my classroom in obscure places – beneath the duster, inside the bookshelf, behind the blackboard- and once in a while, whenever I had questions like “What is the meaning of this word?” or “How do we pronounce this word?” or “Does this word exist?”, it would manifest out of nowhere right onto my teacher’s lips. This was our English teacher’s answer to most of the questions we had. She kept reminding us of the importance of a dictionary and how one must never miss a single opportunity to consult it so much so that there came a point in my life, sometime during my junior school years, when I was convinced that consulting a dictionary was as important as consulting a physician before swallowing a pill or consulting the family priest before tying the nuptial knot. She made us do it over and over again. Whenever we encountered a new word staring at us from the pages of Onward English* we would grab our dictionaries and run our index fingers vertically over the printed text instead of horizontally for a change.
My junior school English teacher was one of her kind and her deep love for The Oxford English Dictionary was pretty well known. She was a vehement supporter of the do-not-carry-heavy-bags-to-school philosophy but that did not exempt us from carrying this 400 gm mass in our school bags everyday. It had to be with us during the school hours. Punitive actions were taken against defaulters who were subjected to public humiliation. Of course, I am talking about a time when standing outside the classroom with hands behind one’s back and head hung in shame was considered humiliating unlike college days when such incidents created a rage on Facebook and the defaulter was lauded by all and sundry.
We, as students, were expected to be adept at looking up a word in the dictionary. Very often our teacher conducted drills wherein she scribbled a word on the blackboard and challenged us to find its meaning in the minimum possible time. And then, all hell would break loose in our class. Students would dive into their bags, fish out a copy of the dictionary, turn over the pages frantically and start searching the aforementioned word like a treasure hunter looking for gold. The winner was generally awarded a Kismi Bar or one of other such sweet delights.
I have spent many an evening alternating between the Famous Five books and my Oxford English Dictionary. I usually snapped it shut after reading the meaning although my mother always insisted that I read further to learn about the word’s pronunciation, alternate forms, usage etc. Sometimes I took her advice, most of the times I did not.
Somewhere down the line, when the dot com bomb exploded and caught everyone and everything in its flames, a “.com” was placed in front of our beloved dictionary as well. The diving-into-our-bags, flipping-over-the-pages and running-our-fingers-vertically got replaced by enter-the-URL, type-the-word and click. These days I come across very few people of my age who still use the their dictionaries regularly. I know for a fact that I don’t. Almost all the text editors come with an inbuilt digital dictionary and thesaurus thereby obviating the need to seek assistance of their physical counterparts. School going children might use it in school but they rarely use one at home. I encourage my younger brother time and again to use it as much as possible. Even in this age when infants are born tech savvy I feel looking up a word in the dictionary is a skill we must all know. Although considered a bit cumbersome by Gen Z, I think it has its own charm.
A few weeks back, as I was digging through a pile of crap in a cardboard box to find a pair of old spectacles, I stumbled upon an old dictionary of mine, one which had accompanied me to school every single day. It still had a brown laminated cover with a Donald Duck label stuck on it. The curling edges, the about-to-become-yellow pages and the lovely old-book smell which we adore so much transported me to my school days. Somehow, while I was shifting from my old house into the new one it landed up in that cardboard box. Sadly its absence from my bookshelf went unnoticed.
This dictionary now has a space for itself on my bookshelf. I know I won’t be using it much but it’s always nice to have one looking at you all the time. 🙂
So, what about you? When was the last time you consulted your dictionary?
* My English text book in junior school if I remember correctly 🙂
Note: The word dictionary in this post implies a physical dictionary unless otherwise stated.