Fourteen Years Before The Masthead

Nearly 14 years ago I bought a bag full of heavy, hardcover reference books at the late Borders Books on The Strip. I had started at The Alliance Review a few weeks earlier and found in my new job as a neophyte reporter a nice excuse to buy books. That began an intense interest of reference books that parallels my time at The Review.
I’ve always loved dictionaries and thesauruses. Thorndike-Barnhart dictionaries conjure happy memories of elementary school, and I still own the Hammond world atlas, a paperback French-English dictionary, a paperback thesaurus and a paperback American Heritage Dictionary from my high school years. I mentioned these ideas last August in a column about Brewer’s, but for a reason yet to be named I want to again discuss one of my great passions.
As I said in August, those books purchased in July 2002 at The Strip sparked a fervor for reference works that continues to this day. I bought a matched set of maroon leather-like Merriam-Webster dictionary and thesaurus, and while browsing I discovered “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,” which became a fast friend and has contributed to many a Scriptorium over the years.
I resembled the average dictionary user in 2002 — I referred to a dictionary as simply “the dictionary,” not knowing or distinguishing the differences among the various editions — but that soon changed as I acquired books and studied their front matter. I learned, for instance, that Merriam-Webster is the only dictionary whose roots go back to Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” In the front matter, which explains the philosophy and layout of a dictionary, I learned that M-W orders its definitions chronologically starting with the etymology, which illustrates a word’s antecedents in other languages. I had always assumed definitions were arranged by most common to least used. American Heritage orders its definitions in the same way and goes further by including in its college and unabridged works an appendix of Indo-European roots.
In September 2003 I interviewed Mike Agnes, editor-in-chief of Webster’s New World dictionary, for a business story for The Review. Agnes told me about the philosophy of dictionaries regarding descriptive versus prescriptive definitions. In other words, shall a dictionary merely describe word usage and with no editorial comment list so-called incorrect usages, or shall it give advice on the correct usage of words? M-W caused an uproar in the linguistic world in 1961 when its third unabridged was published with all advice removed, and that led to the publication of the AH, which gives advice. Agnes said WNW lies between the two.
Next in my reference exploration came the world of thesauri. Roget’s is another word, like Webster’s, that is bandied about by publishers but originally belonged to the thesaurus created in the 19th century by Peter Mark Roget. The original Roget’s, and they are still made that way, presents in the first half of the book word lists by subject, the second half devoted to an index of the words. Those lists do not consist of true synonyms but are a fun way for the word explorer to delve into a subject with zest. For example, I enjoy studying the pages on music and reading the lists of instruments and music terms, the list of the many shades of blue in the section on colors, and the section on animals. For true synonyms it may be better to consult a true dictionary of synonyms, and many are presented in strict alphabetical order, making them good for quick consultations but not offering the wealth of word exploration found in Roget’s. When I have the time I consult both types of thesauri.
I also discovered, over the years, the “Oxford English Dictionary” in its various editions, various encyclopedias and a host of specialty reference books, but I’m out of space. Most of my columns are on my blog,, and by clicking on the Tags at right for Dictionaries and Encyclopedias you can find many posts about the reference books that guide me on my exploration of words, educate me on a wide range of subjects and help me to write.

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