The advice was logical but jarring to my ears: ‘Shift the dictionaries.’ The problem was that the shelves of our bookcase were overstacked and we needed space for recent research books. The solution came up swiftly, but I was reluctant to disturb the old setting.
‘You don’t need them as frequently now,’ a family member cooed soothingly, sensing my disinclination.
I stood looking at the impressive rows of dictionaries standing like soldiers in a ceremonial parade formation — neat and disciplined. There was colour too: the deep blue of the Oxford editions; the red of Cambridge International; a combination of red and blue of Collins; the leather-bound brown Merriam-Webster — an incredible array of dictionaries bought year after year as per my scholastic requirements. To me, shifting them to some inconspicuous corner appeared sacrilegious.
‘Who consults a dictionary these days when words are just a touch away on your mobile?’ butted in one of the digital buffs of my family. ‘They are so cumbersome,’ he added. I felt a lump rise in my throat.
Despite my reservations, I started clearing the dictionary shelf, slyly cuddling each volume. Here was the thin pocket New English Dictionary of my school days, a gift from my father. ‘Look, I bought it when I was in Siam during the War. Use it carefully.’ Father would call it Siam, not Thailand.
Gradually, the collection swelled as my teaching career advanced and with it my yearning turned into a craze. My buying spree included dictionaries of idioms, proverbs, word origin, pronunciation, Hindi to English and English to Hindi and even an Urdu-Hindi one to keep abreast of the ghazals of the 1970s. Basically, these were word finders with rudimentary information about their roots and symbols for pronunciation.
The dear old Roget’s Thesaurus, now turned yellow with age, was followed by the more recent Dictionary of Literary Terms and the Dictionary of Feminist Terms. Indlish: The Book for Every English-speaking Indian was a punchbag commenting on funny and nonsensical expressions used by our journalists.
Hobson-Jobson, tracing the journey of eastern words and phrases as adopted in English, narrated briefly the stories behind the words. It was an enriching tool to find sociological and historical relevance of words, besides their linguistic import.
As I dwelt on the distinct personality of each, Samuel Johnson, regarded as the first lexicographer, flashed across my mind. What would be his reaction were he to know that the good old dictionary was no longer relevant? But suddenly, a light flickered in my brain. Are dictionaries really vanishing? No. They are safe in the deep vaults of the Internet, and as long as we use words, dictionaries would always remain relevant. As Emily Dickinson said: ‘A word is dead/When it is said,/Some say./ I say it just/Begins to live/That day.’
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