Thursday, October 26, 2017



Conall Cearnach (i.e. Frederick William O'Connell), "The Danger of the Dictionary," Old Wine & New (Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son Ltd., 1922), pp. 62-63:
Dictionaries are a delusion and a snare. Crede experto: in my time I have handled many. If anyone wants to know the real reason why I never got an exhibition in the Intermediate, it is simply because I acquired the (for me, at any rate) pernicious habit of frequenting the reading-room of the National Library in the evenings, ostensibly to study the Classics. Alas I there I was surrounded by temptation, for the walls were covered with dictionaries, and, once I succumbed to the lure of poring over one, the hours flew by, until closing time arrived without my ever opening my Greek or Latin text-book. Dictionaries seem to follow me wherever I go as stray dogs do kind-hearted people. There are at the present moment nineteen of them on my shelves, although I periodically try to lose them at secondhand book-stalls or give them away to learners.

Of course, I should not like to part with my Dinneen. But that is different: I saw it in the making, being, so to speak, in at the birth. On the other hand, I feel that I owe whatever gleams of sanity remain with me to the fact that ten years ago I sold my large Liddell and Scott. To open that volume was to tempt Providence. Looking for one word found another of absorbing interest, and so on, until I was committed to a regular game of "send the fool farther." For a champion time-waster commend me to a Chinese dictionary. You start with the "word," which is a sort of post-impressionist sketch of a primitive picture. The first task in the solution of the picture-puzzle is to find the hidden "root," and when you have discovered it you painstakingly count the number of other strokes that go to make up the word—they may amount to twenty-two—and then, on looking in the dictionary under that particular root, plus the number of extra strokes, you find the meaning; that is, if you are not out in your count of the strokes, or have not started off with an imaginary root—a mistake which is not at all uncommon.

Some well-meaning individuals make it a practice to keep handy a dictionary of the vernacular for reference when writing letters, to be consulted in case of doubt. The fallacy underlying this is that people whose spelling is shaky are usually cocksure about the orthography of the very words which they invariably spell wrongly. Sometimes dictionaries try to escape notice, and deceive us as to their identity by describing themselves as Lexicons. For some reason or other, we talk of a Latin dictionary, but of a Greek or Hebrew "Lexicon." That is only another wile of the enemy of time.

Life is too short for word-chasing; and my advice to the prospective purchaser is, "Shun the lexicon as you would shun the very dictionary itself!" I am the least suspicious of mortals; yet, now that I come to think of it, most of my nineteen dictionaries (including lexicons) are presents! Just now it is fashionable in certain circles to evade the dog tax by judiciously losing the animal before the appointed day for registration. Can it be that I, in turn, have been the victim of the dictionary-"losing" game which I have so often played at the expense of other folk? If so, it is a righteous Nemesis.
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