Books that beg for dictionaries: when novels prompt a word quest

I love to read a book that challenges my vocabulary.

My younger son finds it fabulous; why would anyone want to stop a story to look up a strange word?

Definition FABULOUSI appreciate the novelty—the excitement—of meeting a new meaning. I’ll even take the time to browse my dictionary when an old acquaintance is being used in an unusual way.

I like older novels for this, and erudite ones.

Though the mysteries of Ngaio Marsh slip right into my favorite genre of relaxing bedside reading—drawing room murders from the heyday of British crime fiction—they also represent an era of rapid change in which slang blossomed. Some of the phrases are obscure enough that I can’t find their like on the internet.

book Ngaio Marsh curvet def - 1These aren’t “hard” words, necessarily, but phrases of a different time, and perhaps only ever used on a different continent. Dame Marsh set most of her novels in London, though she was born and died in New Zealand.

In the 1930’s, this college educated author and actress mined both the upper and lower castes of British society for material, including, it seems, popular turns of phrase. To read these novels, one must expect to hazard guesses at some vocabulary by context, and to find high class words worth looking up aplenty.

I don’t mind it at all. I’ve found a treasure hunt inside my diverting little story.

When the wind forces a character to “curvet like a charger,” I get a sense of its horsey motion, of course, but I turn to Merriam Webster to instruct me further on the verb’s specifics.

Definition of CURVET

Marsh could have written “pranced,” but how much fun would that be for me the next time I play Scrabble?

book dictionary - 1My son—and his home educated compatriot, The Scholar, whom I tutor in another subject—both recently expressed shock at an assertion on my part that there was value in looking words up in a physical dictionary. That’s my good old American Heritage (3rd edition) in the photos, though I tend to use Merriam-Webster for digital searches and paid for the iTunes edition thereof to use offline on my phone.

Even more outrageous than the claim that asking Siri wasn’t equal to practicing one’s alphabet by flipping through paper pages was the statement confirmed by the other mom in the room that we and many others grew up enjoying our relationship with a dictionary.

At least two of us grown up lovers of books felt affection, love, excitement at all that these hefty tomes had revealed to us. I’m guessing this applies to many more bibliophiles out there, some of them even less than middle aged.

Quick show of hands: who knew the verb “to curvet” before now? And who loves a dictionary? I’m guessing more of the latter than the former.

8 thoughts on “Books that beg for dictionaries: when novels prompt a word quest

    • And do you have a favorite dictionary, or just use whatever’s on hand?

      When I worked in a bookstore for a time, I ended up developing a bit of a feeling for the differences. There was the one required by the local schools, and then the one I’d recommend instead to the kids who actually cared to look up more interesting words…

      • Way back before I was born (the youngest of three), my father bought a huge set of encyclopedias. They came with a leather-bound, Oxford English Dictionary, that’s about 18 inches tall, 12 inches deep, and about 4 inches thick. That came with us to Canada. For more modern entries, we buy a big Mercian-Webster every few years.

        But I always check the big OED first. Even the smell as I open the front cover is pure nostalgia.

      • Does it also have the tiny print to squeeze as much information as possible in? I think they sell that one bundled with a magnifying glass. (Or did so back in the 1990’s.)

        My mother has an antique Bible that she keeps out on a special stand in the living room. I always find myself thinking, “That ought to be a dictionary…” 🙂

        One of my fantasies is the buy the full, multi-volume OED that takes up an entire shelf. I think they retail for around $1000, but I swoon to imagine having my own.

  1. Mercian-Webster? Merriam-Webster. The auto-correct on that hand-me-down iPhone is going to get me in trouble… after it gets thrown in the lake.

  2. Yes it has the small print, plus some extremely old and detailed illustrations scattered throughout. Funnily enough, in these latter years, I keep a magnifying glass in a wooden box on the same bookshelf 🙂

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