I received my first dictionary on my eleventh birthday. I think
it was an American Heritage, though it might have been a Merriam-Websters.
It had a royal blue cover and I loved it because it was a real
dictionary, an adult dictionary, thick and official and tiny-typed.
It had the added attraction, for an eleven-year-old, of color
illustrationsflags, planets, rocksand I examined those
first. I wrote my name on the front page. I studied the list of
colleges and universities in the back. I read the explanatory
notes on capitalization and etymology and usage. And I used it
until it fell apart.
I love reading dictionaries. Not the dictionary, as most people
say, as if there were just one, divinely inspired, like the Bible,
and passed down through the ages. There are dozens of different
sorts of dictionaries, each with its own structure and purpose.
They are the books that make up books. But they also contain stories
of their own: they have beginnings, middles, and ends; they span
history; they change over time. Theyre thick, sturdy, and
self-assured (and when theyre not, they are honest, noting
competing theories of origin or pronunciation).
Until I began reporting and writing Word Freak
, my book
about the world of competitive Scrabble, I was a "look at
that!" sort of dictionary reader. Id look up one word,
and Id happen on another wonderful entry nearby. "Look
at that!" Id think with delight; then Id happen
on another wonderful entry. And so on.
Then I met people whose love of dictionaries far surpassed mine.
Expert Scrabble players matter-of-factly describe falling asleep
reading The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary
. One reclusive
obsessive has scrutinized every page of well over a dozen dictionaries
by hand. He showed me a compendium of pseudonyms, in which hed
written hundreds of his own entries. He also combed through the
five dictionaries from which The Official Scrabble Players
is drawn, in order to root out errors and omissions
in the OSPD. He found two thousand. As new editions of the source
dictionaries were published, he scoured them too, and over a decade
his list of new words for Scrabble grew to fifty-five hundred.
His work was the exclusive source for a second edition of the
Scrabble dictionary. He didnt expect to be paid for his
effort, and he wasnt.
A few years ago, Scrabble replaced the OSPD as its official reference
with a book that isnt a dictionary at all. Its just
a list of 110,000 two- through nine-letter words plus their inflections.
To me, that book is a work of abstract art. I love riffling the
pages, stopping randomly, and letting my eyes run along the alphabetized
columns. Its a word list stripped of the baggage of meaning,
and I like that.
Scrabble has given me this odd affection for an abstract word
collection, and it has changed the way I read real dictionaries,
too. I am devoted to Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary,
, because thats the Scrabble source for
base words longer than nine letters. But Im most attracted
to words seven or eight letters long. Those are the "bingos"
in Scrabble, which use all seven tiles on a rack and hence earn
50 bonus points. When I scan the pages of Merriam-Websters
I pause at unfamiliar sevens and eights and dawdle over their
spellings and meanings. I profound pleasure in the aesthetic beauty
of the words, and wonder over the forces of history that brought
them to this page. Also, I just love to look at them. I feel like
that eleven-year-old boy again, flipping from one shiny illustration
to the other and marveling at the words in between.
Some of the characters in Word Freak