My high school graduation present wasn’t a car. It wasn’t luggage, or a vacation, or a huge party.
It was an unabridged dictionary.
It was a beautiful, glorious, six-inch-thick Second Edition Newly Revised and Updated Random House Unabridged Dictionary. As I opened the heavy package and unveiled this tome I laughed as only a glee-filled teenager given the perfect gift could laugh. The vellum pages were slick under my fingers as I sped from one page to another, following an etymological trail like an archaeologist sifting for buried treasure.
Because truly, for this girl who had known since she was ten years old that she wanted to write, this dictionary was a vault of undiscovered gems. In High School I took Latin because I wanted to learn the origin of words, and where better to start than the foundation of the romance languages? Later I studied Russian for a bit, because with its Cyrillic alphabet there was a whole new continent of sounds and nuances. Over the years I’ve moved so often I wore a hole in my mom’s address book, but that dictionary is still with me, and it has never – ever – seen the inside of a box.
My love of words was not, as a friend of mine would say, so that I could use a 25 cent word when a 5 cent would do. It was, and is, the opposite. I’m ever in search of the perfect word that says precisely what I mean. As much as I love language I want to be exact with my choices. I want to communicate.
I grew up reading novels that would transport me to other worlds. When a story captures me I prop it open with a tube of toothpaste as I’m brushing my teeth or a can opener as I’m stirring the sauce. When I finished Shogun, all 1,152 pages of James Clavell’s storytelling majesty, I wanted more. I read Les Miserable before I saw the musical and to this day I can see Hugo’s Eponine, as he described her, as I hear her sing.
The idea that someone can take 26 letters and a few marks of dots and curves and dashes and arrange them in such a compelling way that you’ll want to stop doing anything else is mysterious and marvelous. It’s a skill, a rare and beautiful talent, to create a world that elicits reactions from all five of your senses but only uses one.
I want to do that.
There’s so much in this world that I’d like to capture and share. When able I try to capture it with my camera, but it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words and the more I use the lens the less I use words. In some ways I have the best of both worlds with my website, but I’m also limited to virtual sound bytes of information.
Or am I?
Twitter has taught us that communication can be powerful in 140 characters or less. Before that, there was the haiku or even the limerick.
While I often lament the short attention spans fostered by today’s multi-tasking information-overloaded no-time-for-tomes lifestyle, it’s also created a new style of communication that enforces a rule of efficiency. To get your message across you must be succinct, persuasive and entertaining. You must use the exact words in precisely the right way or your reader is off to the next bright shiny object. You must use language as if it were a priceless luxury, not a commodity of inconsequential fluff used as fillers. (I think Hemingway would do quite well today. Nathaniel Hawthorne? Not so much.)
That is why, in a world of brevity, I adore a book of words that purports to cover them all. It is the talisman of wordsmiths and a treasure map for authors. Language enables anyone to put thoughts into an order that others can understand. We can use those words to wound, to heal, to share, and to love.
When used well, words can be the greatest gift of all.