So I was having a deep thought the other day. “Gee,” I thought (it seems that my deep thoughts often start with “Gee”). “Gee,” I thought, “I haven’t seen a dictionary in quite some time.” I used to have one on my desk, one of Mr. Webster’s, it was. Red, it was. A heavy tome. Sure enough, after a brief search of the newsroom, I found one.
But why would I consult Mr. Webster, nowadays, or even Messrs. Funk & Wagnalls, when I have Google, and oodles of dictionary sites on the internet, as well as the spell checkers that are built into most computer writing programs, including the one I’m using right now?
Well, here’s why.
Sure, I can look up any word at all, even if I have nothing better than a wild idea of how it’s spelled, just by typing it into any online dictionary. Better than that, the machine will anticipate my intentions by outthinking me: I just type “anti” and it gives me anticipate (“regard as probable; expect or predict”), bracketed by antithesis (“a person or thing that is the direct opposite of someone or something else”) and antiquated (“old-fashioned or outdated”).
Terrific. All that’s missing are the hundreds, maybe thousands, of words that I would have been exposed to, that might have caught my eye, if I’d been leafing through the pages of Webster’s instead of just clicking where it says “search.” Words that I might have paused to peruse and parse while poring over all those pages.
For instance, Terpsichore (“the Greek Muse of dancing and choral song”), perhaps, while looking up teriyaki (“a Japanese dish of meat or fish that is grilled or broiled after being soaked in a seasoned soy sauce marinade”). Or phthiriasis (“pediculosis, especially: infestation with pubic lice”) while looking up phyllo (“extremely thin dough that is layered to produce a flaky pastry”). Or maybe mazuma (“slang: money”) when what I was actually looking for was mazurka (“a Polish folk dance in moderate triple measure”).
What’s more, the book will also tell me that teriyaki comes from the Japanese words meaning “to shine” and “to broil”; that mazuma comes from Hebrew, via Yiddish; and that mazurka also means a woman from the Mazovia region of central Poland.
What’s missing, you see — when I google (“to use the Google search engine to obtain information about someone or something on the World Wide Web”) instead of reaching for a dictionary (“a reference book listing alphabetically terms or names along with discussion of their meanings and applications”) — is serendipity (“the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”)
Even the boldface label words, telling you the first and last words defined on each page, are invitations for further aimless rambling: churchgoer / cilia on one page, ciliary / Cinque Ports on the next. Or dirtily / disk. Or jetport / Jim Crow.
And what is the derivation (“the formation of a word from another word or base, as by the addition of a usually noninflectional affix”) of serendipity? Well, it was coined around 1754, by Horace Walpole, after The Three Princes of Serendip (i.e. Sri Lanka), a Persian fairy tale in which the princes make such discoveries.
Now, isn’t that interesting?
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.