An old fixation with dictionaries

An old fixation with dictionaries

Mohan Singh

My two elder brothers had matriculated from the Rangoon School Board affiliated to the University of London in the 1930s. One of them had a light-weight Collins Pocket Gem Dictionary printed on rice paper and bound in a soft plastic jacket. He hardly ever used it, but told me that those days, any book purchase of Rs 5 or more was entitled to this free gift.

In Punjab, not much English was spoken then, and one rarely, if ever, needed to use a dictionary, except perhaps to settle an argument on spelling. I remember an incident concerning my encounter with one in 1952. I was looking for a second-hand book on physics along the pavement, when I saw two ‘high gentry’ women haggling with the proprietor of a book shop at Hall Bazaar. They had purchased the thick, hard-bound Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, which they wanted to return and demanded a refund, because the book was moth-eaten. The shopkeeper didn’t have another copy, but was ready to refund Rs 7, which was not acceptable to the buyer. I was accompanied by my friend TS, and after leafing through the edition, we offered to buy it for Rs 10. He agreed and we contributed equal amounts as partners, the unwritten condition being that it would be used cooperatively on a monthly basis.

I wrote, in bold calligraphic capitals, my friend’s name on the fly page, thus granting him full ownership thereof, though it remained mostly with me. I, too, used it only while solving crosswords introduced as regular feature in a weekly as a promotional feature. Some dividend did come my way in the form of enhanced vocabulary. But after my BSc, I was eligible to do postgraduation, privately, only in English, the other subjects being restricted to regular students. Thus I landed in a college of repute, as a lecturer in English without any training in ‘teaching’ this language.

Awareness of only a cross-section of literature was taking a toll on my confidence, some of which returned when the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad, exposed us to the relevant technology: repeated presentation of carefully selected and graded structures. There, in 1977, we were introduced to the just-arrived Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

My obsession with dictionaries spread among friends and took me to subject dictionaries, and the heavy two-volume Reader’s Digest Great Illustrated Dictionary and its three-volume red Encyclopaedic Dictionary. When I went to the US to attend a wedding some years ago, my nephew gave me a parting gift—an 8-kg Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. It supplies the meaning of every English word, except novel coronavirus. It is likely to be the word of the century in all future publications, regardless of language.

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