Dear Merriam-Webster, you should define “immolation” better than this!

I sincerely enjoy a good dictionary. I use a hardcover American Heritage edition a couple of times a week, the Merriam- Webster app or a paid Kindle version of several foreign language dictionaries often, and online lookups almost every day.

Recently, I was disappointed by Merriam- Webster online. I looked up “immolation,” mostly because it’s the kind of word whose correct spelling I prefer to confirm before using it in a post. Here’s what M-W had to say:

Screenshot immolation definintion MWI have to ask: seriously? This is the best definition you can provide?

If I don’t know what immolation means, I probably also don’t know the meaning of immolating or immolated, without which knowledge I can get no use from this definition.

And the example provides no new clues. Well, except that Aztecs performed “bloody” immolations, which still leaves the reader free to imagine any number of possible meanings.

img_7315In an age when most of the students I know prefer to “ask Siri” instead of looking up unknown words for themselves, I’d like to see Merriam- Webster and other dictionaries proving their worth at every opportunity.

I think this is one definition that could be done by Merriam-Webster much better.

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.