Dictionaries

I love dictionaries. I always have or at least I have ever since I fell in love with words. That love affair has been going on for over half a century now and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. Dictionaries are my favorite books. I don’t read them cover to cover anymore. I used to but I started to notice how much of an elephantine pedant I was becoming and gave it up so I could keep friends.

            I love having a dictionary around. There’s one on my desk in close reach. Sometimes it’s comforting to know that when I’m busy pouring words onto paper that the right word and the right spelling are right there where I need them. There are online dictionaries now that you can access at the push of a button but for me there’s nothing like the feel of flipping through pages. It always feels more like a search.

            When you’re a writer, words are your bread and butter. It helps to have a facility with them and an earnest desire to keep on learning more and more of them. I used to carry a notebook around in my back pocket so I could scribble words down and look them up later. I found amazing words that way. I still use a lot of them in my work, like scrim and redolent and gravitas.

Nowadays I get emails from an online dictionary. They send me a new word for every day. I find that it serves a very utilitarian function during my work day – plus it comes in handy too. They have an audio player so you can hear correct pronunciations and they put them into sentences so you can glean context. Usually, I look them up in my physical dictionary when they send me one I particularly like. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

I have the Oxford Canadian dictionary on my desk. I like it because there’s a lot of specific Canadian nomenclature, argot and slang you wouldn’t find other places. When I was a newsroom journalist I had that one, as well as the  regular Oxford, the Webster’s American, the dictionary of quotations, place names and a really good thesaurus to augment all of them. You can never really have too many words at your disposal.

I remember hearing a story about an aspiring artist. She went up to a great painter and asked, “What does it take to be a great painter?” The artist thought a moment and said, “You have to love the smell of paint.”

Someone asked me one time, “What advice do you give Native people who want to be writers?” My first rely was, “Never listen to advice.” But I changed it to, “Grow to love the feel of words on your tongue.”

Now, that might sound funny but the truth is that words were spoken before they were ever written down. Our entire ethos of literature was built on the idea of oral or spoken communication. When I discover a new word I say it out loud. Then, when I have the correct pronunciation, I say it slower. I stress the syllables. I allow my tongue and teeth and lips and ears to inform my brain of the nuances of a given word. When I do that I own it and it becomes another tool for me to use. 

When you’re a writer you have to love the sound and feel and weight of words. Actually, if you’re going to do anything in this life, that’s pretty darn good advice. When you can communicate clearly and directly, you just naturally do everything better. It stands to reason that the more words you possess the better you can make yourself understood. Clarity is given short shrift in this world, actually.

So is erudition, or the ability to speak compellingly. Now, I don’t mean that you have to go on a mission to find difficult or challenging words to pepper your talk with or to impress people. I mean that if clarity is your aim then you need to find a good, supple supply of words to help achieve that. One good hard syllable, or two, works far better than polysyllabic gobbledygook any day of the week. 

Native people sometimes ask me, “Why is it so important to learn a lot of English words?” I tell them because it’s not just our own people we have to communicate with. We need to share our stories with everyone if we’re going to build a better country and a better world. There’s a dictionary word for that; it’s community. It means all the people who live somewhere. Like Earth, our common home.

  Words open doors, open hearts and open minds. Couldn’t think of a better tool to carry around eh?

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About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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