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?