Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Consulting a Dictionary

I’ve been thinking about dictionaries. It was yesterday’s vocabulary quiz that got me on this track. How is it, I wondered, that I couldn’t produce a definition of quixotic or phlegmatic with certainty despite being familiar with both words?

I have a dictionary of which I’m rather fond (The Canadian Oxford Dictionary), and I consult it with some regularity. But I’ve realized that while I consult it when I’m writing, I almost never do so when I’m reading. I look up words that I already know to check the proper spelling. Or I look up words that I think I know to erase any doubt about whether I’m using them properly. Only very rarely do I pause in the middle of a book that I’m reading to look up an unfamiliar word and find out what it means. If the unfamiliar word is so crucial that I can’t make sense of the passage in which it appears without a precise definition, I will stir myself to look it up. Most of the time, however, I just guess what the word means from the context and continue on. Eventually, after repeated encounters, my initial guess develops into a solid conviction. I don’t bother to test that conviction until I opt to use the word in print myself. This method seems to work. Nevertheless, on reflection it strikes me as a rather sloppy way to build a vocabulary. Perhaps it’s time I changed my ways.

Do you own a dictionary? Have you eschewed paper and ink dictionaries in favour of virtual ones? When do you consult a dictionary, and for what purpose?


bloglily said...

I do own a dictionary -- several in fact. I use the one in my office once a month or so, generally to make sure I'm using a word correctly in my writing. I never use the one in my house, which is where I do most of my non-work reading. I have a rhyming dictionary I like a lot--but that's more for fun, rather than a reference. I also use a Spanish-English dictionary almost every day to help my youngest son with his homework. I'm with you == having conducted this survey of my dictionary habits, I'd like to be a more faithful dictionary user.

Ella said...

I have a dictionary I am very fond of, a Random House College Edition I won as an English prize in high school. I didn't realize how much I consulted it until I had to put it in storage a couple months ago.

And, Kate, I have to ask - what makes a Canadian dictionary different from, say, a regular Oxford English one?

jenclair said...

I own a couple of dictionarys but rarely use them anymore. Usually my need to know how to spell a word occurs at the computer, and I use online references.

It is rare that I won't know the meaning of a word when reading; context is an excellent and efficient means of learning words.

I frequently use a dictionary, online or hard copy, for etymology. Sometimes a word, often a simple word that I've read thousands of times, will arouse my curiosity. How long has it been in use, is it of Germanic or Latin origin, has the meaning ameliorated or become pejorative, what differences between American and English spelling or pronunciation, etc.

Imani said...

I use one quite often, the Oxford that's on my Mac. It may be to learn the definition but very often, it is also for the etymology. I have become more sensitive to the fact that the root of the word, and previous uses are as relevant to the author's use of the word as the current definition.

I get a frisson of pleasure from thinking so, anyway. :)

mandarine said...

I forced myself to learn a lot of English vocabulary when I started to study the language by picking the Lord Of The Rings, and deciding I'd highlight and look up every word I did not know.
With hindsight, I admit it must have worked. But this process had two dreadful downsides:
1 - when you are not sure about one every four words, the reading gets seriously hampered. I would just read and highlight until the bottom of a page, then it would take me a quarter of an hour to look up the words in a dictionary before I could move on to the next page.
2 - half the words I did not know were nowhere to be found in a normal English dictionary (elvenking, mithril, palantir, etc.), and that was very puzzling.

After a while, I had enough vocabulary to just guess from context, and therefore I began to forget looking up highlighted words, then to skip highlighting altogether.

The consequence is similar to forgetting your glasses: I sort of know the general meaning of the words, but they are often blurred, fuzzy on the edges, or I cannot make out the exact color.

Now that I am writing, I do look up those words that are still a little shapeless, and it's like when the projectionist finally gets the focus right: things suddenly get a such a crisp sharp outline that you wonder how you could have done without.

Danielle said...

I do have a big dictionary at home, but I tend to use them online, too. How did you manage A+, when you weren't sure of two of the words? ;) I only got a B+--I took the quiz twice and got the same score both times. I wonder which ones I missed. Lazy me should have looked them up, eh? I tend not to look up words in books unless I am really clueless and I can't tell from the context. I really need to build my vocabularly--I understand far more words than I use and that bothers me!!

Dorothy W. said...

I use a dictionary only occasionally -- rarely I should say. I too pick up the meanings of words from context, which leaves me with a very hazy idea of what a word means sometimes. This is a problem when students ask me for definitions in class!

Cam said...

I have a dictionary....somewhere. I tend to use an online dictionary during the work day, but usually for spelling. I most often derive the meaning from the context, but the problem with that is not knowing the word out of context, as Dorothy wrote. Guess that is why I missed two questions on the vocab quiz -- quixotic and perusal. But missing perusal wasn't a contextual defintion error. No, I wasn't reading carefully and mismarked the answer. How funny is that!

I recently started to write words down in the back of a book if I don't know it, or am unsure of it's meaning in context. Later, I look them up. I'm considering keeping a list in a notebook beginning in January, so I have a record in one place of the words I've looked up and learned.

litlove said...

I use dictionaries the whole time, invitably French-English ones when I'm reading French novels, but the English one too, to be sure that I'm using the right word in the right place, and sometimes to track back to the roots of a word, because the implications for its meaning can be very intriguing. I am also a big, big fan of the thesaurus, and will use that on a regular basis too. Language is a tricksy thing, and you can't be too careful with it, I think.

lucette said...

I have a number of dictionaries, maybe half a dozen? including the small print of the Oxford English Dictionary. The most used one is an AMerican Heritage--my boyfriend likes to ask me what words mean when he's reading, and if I can't give a satisfactory account ("sort of heavy? with a kind of dull overtone?", he looks them up.
I'm a contexter, too, maybe a small, still-going rebellion against my mother's vocabulary tasks (5 new words a week); they did come in handy though when I took the SAT.

Remi said...

I use my Canadian Oxford for much the same reason and with much the same concerns when it comes to reading. It's surprising how many words you learn in context without knowing the actual meaning.

As for the difference between the Canadian Oxford and the regular Oxford that ella asks about - the Canadian Oxford uses Canadian English which is a mishmash of British and American english. It also defines some particular Canadianisms like "liquid lunch" and "idiot string".

I've used online dictionaries but they are not nearly as fun as leafing through a weighty tome and sometimes chancing on some weird and wonderful word.