Sunday, April 7, 2013

Contextually speaking

I had one of my cheap and frequent dime store epiphanies while searching for a word in the dictionary the other day that I would like to share with you. It can not be argued that the presence of the world wide web has revolutionized learning. Books are now digitized, we can instantly translate other languages, the answer to every "how to" question in the world now lies within reach of our fingertips. But are these new conduits to data always better?

Not necessarily. I will tell you one tool whose online incarnation is in some ways inferior to its predecessor and that would be the dictionary. The reason is the following and I won't belabor the point on a sunday morning. With a physical dictionary you can see the words above and below your entry. I believe that there is a great value in this, especially when considering things like latin roots. An old school dictionary allows you a contextual view that is missing in an online data search.

I reach for my New International Webster's Compact Dictionary of the English Language, International Encyclopedic Edition, Trident Press 1999. Let us pull out a word at random. Here it is, enjoin. 1.To order emphatically and authoritatively. To impose (a condition, course of action) on a person or group. It comes from the latin root [< in + jungere - join>] en-joiner n.

Now this might not have been the best word to choose but random is random after all so we will dance with the word that "brung" us. The word on top of enjoin is enigmatic, an adjective of enigma, from the greek ainissesthai - to speak in riddles. The word below enjoin is enjoy -1.  to experience joy or pleasure, to receive pleasure or have the possession of 2. to have the use or benefit of. From the latin [<in-gaudere rejoice>].

So while we have not in this case received information about our original search word, you oftentimes do, and you still get to do a little mental gymnastic exercise trying to establish a linguistic nexus or linkage between the sequential entries.

Searching for knowledge is a great way to keep mentally fit.

I believe that I have mentioned that for years at a time we had no television when I was young. But we did have a Brittanica, a dictionary and a World Book, like most families. We also had a 10k plus volume library in our home thanks to our teacher parents. Living in a steep dutch gable garret in Syosset, my brother Buzz and I would stay up late at night, memorize the World Book and dictionary and test each other and we got surprisingly good at it. Not because we were exceedingly intelligent, but because we frankly had nothing else to do, short of banging our heads on the low slanted ceiling.

Leslie and I have not watched the tube in the past 20 years either. Let me know if I have missed anything of value, will you?

I decided to look up dictionary in the online dictionary. Not the easiest thing to do, sort of like trying to throw a trash can away. The trash man always sees it as an empty. I wanted to look up the word dictionary because I assume that it comes from diction, which I figured was more about speaking then meaning. The following is the online entry:

Not very helpful for providing any hints of linguistic birthright or etymology. But my handy, old school Websters tells me a little bit more. It comes from the medieval term dictionarium, sounds Roman, a collection of words and phrases. But it turns out that I was wrong about diction. The first meaning is actually the use, choice and arrangement of words. The second and more familiar meaning is the manner of enunciating words in speaking or singing, from the latin dicere which means to say. So the word dictionary does have a primarily oral linguistic component, a word first being spoke before it is read, I suppose.

Perhaps the word dictionary itself is somewhat archaic and should be shelved since phonetic pronunciation and the common understanding of diction is now a mere afterthought and secondary to the book's role as a lexicon that shows the meaning of words.

Fare well this fine sunday. Your wordy servant,



Anonymous said...

You have missed the Evoloution of commercials. Now however with the dvr you can mostly skip the ads and watch laugh in sans commercials. High tech.
Still mostly a reader, deli guy.

grumpy said...

actually you've missed a lot of great shows.

Blue Heron said...

I am not trying to say I am smarter, cooler, whatever for not having a television. Sure it is a great medium. I have this horrible inclination to never try to do whatever the other people are doing.