Dictionaries and My Dictionaries

In my last posting,  I brought forth (that is, gave birth to, sort of) some ideas and concerns about literacy.

Let me begin this posting by pasting and copying below a reply I sent to Macky Myers (you can read his comments in the previous series of comments, his “take” on the subject of literacy):


Dear Blog-Responder Myers,

So glad you wrote. E.D. Hirsch,Joseph F. Kett (distinguished
historian) and James Trefil (distinguished scientist),  all
of the University of Virginia, have done marvelous work with
the "Cultural Literacy" movement, especially in public education

Since I was just in the middle of drafting a posting on the role
 of dictionaries in my life, you came along and prodded me, in
effect, to pull from my workspace shelving my copy of the Second
Edition, Revised and Updated, of"The Dictionary of Cultural
Literacy" acquired fifteen years ago, so it is somewhat
outdated, but a delight to both consult and to browse around in.

Most of the work in creating of dictionaries for particular age
groups and to convince public schools in Virginia and elsewhere
 to adopt a "cultural literacy curriculum"  came later. I used
to get the newsletter from the HQ of this effort but somehow lost contact.
Perhaps it is still being published.

I have been an early and an avid convert to the value of cultural
literacy as both subject matter and as a goal for all citizens
who are seeking to improve their knowledge.  I actually sought
a significant grant from the Department of Education at one point
 to set up an evaluation and promotion instrument in the local
community schools.  At one point I talked to Ed Hirsch by phone
 hoping I could lure him to come to our campus (now the University
 of North Carolina at Pembroke) for a presentation.

Thanks again,  and I am curious: are you living and working in
the United Kingdom or have you just kept using an account
headquartered there?

Best wishes,


So, now you know: “The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” is one of the four dictionaries that have interested and informed me the most.  You must pay a visit to Barnes & Noble or another large volume merchandiser and seek out the dictionaries that you yourself might like to have or that could be very helpful to your children,  even if their school has not yet adopted a “cultural literacy” curriculum.  The “adult” model I have covers 23 topics from the Bible to Technology, including such interesting categories as Proverbs, Idioms, Conventions of Written English,  World Geography,  American Geography, Business and Economics, and Medicine and Health.
For an American college student an English dictionary is an essential tool.  There are four or five excellent collegiate dictionaries being published today.  A few years back, when I was still a fixture (I almost wrote “fissure”–no doubt a Freudian slip?) in the Composition and Literature and Language classrooms at UNC-Pembroke,  I began to feel so strongly about the need for a good dictionary that I wrote a letter to “Ann Landers” or maybe it was “Dear Abby”–never could tell these girls apart–recommending that those offering gifts to their high school graduates should be sure that a good college dictionary was on the list.

Dictionaries have been in many ways and at various times an important part of both my scholarly and my personal life.  (How, for example, can you play a legitimate game of “Scrabble” without one of these at hand?  We use a somewhat outdated Random House College Dictionary for that purpose.)

So:  after the “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” and all tis manifestations,  I would recommend that every household have at hand a contemporary “College/Collegiate Dictionary.”

Most of you, if not all,  know or have some familiarity with, at least one “English/Foreign Language” Dictionary (there are a great many dictionaries available which offer an English word list and another language’s word list: both are cross-referenced).  One that I occasionally need is a French-English/English-French Dictionary.  Although I took three years of French in college, taught French for several years in high school,  and completed further studies in an NDEA Institute in French,  I disposed long ago of my quite outdated French-English/English-French dictionary and now often find that (even though I have “Babylon” installed on my computer) I need such at hand.

I also think that having a Latin-English/English-Latin dictionary would be a good thing.  How else could I read and understand “Winnie ille Pooh,” the Latin version of the the famous classic?

What we do have at hand here at home is an “Oxford Duden German Minidictionary,” 1997 printing.  “Duden” is a key name for quality dictionaries about and in German.  I studied German in college for three semesters,  lived for two years in Germany and have a German wife, so I am pretty adept at the everyday discourse. But “High German” grammar and usage I find very challenging.                                                      While the Mini-Duden is only 3″ by 4″ by 1.5 “in external size, it packs 700 pages into its dual lexicons and also provides a list of phonemes (with 60, German has far more than English)  and a pronunciation key, along with a daunting six pages of “Irregular Verbs,” perhaps the most difficult aspect of this language to master,  Ja, diese Dinge machen mich wie ein Dummkopf fuehlen! It is a very handy reference, along with Brigitte, when I wish to write a note to my Schwiegermutter,  wie wohnt in Nuremberg.

I also cherish having two other impressive dictionaries in my home library: (1) A “Petit Larousse” (believe me, “Petit” is a misnomer if there ever was one) that was “Offert Par Le Governement Francais A Raymond Rundus” and everyone else who was accepted into the NDEA Institute in French at the University of Kansas City in 1962.  The “Larousse” dictionaries are probably the best (aside from the OED and all its kinfolk),  the most complete and well-edited dictionaries in the world.  An “encyclopedic dictionary,  the “Petit Larousse” is over 1800 pages; it features such attractions as the flags of the world and highly detailed maps of the main countries abutting France.  The atlas for France is displayed in eight color pages plus one showing each governmental district (departement) in the country.  A special interesting feature (France has “always” been renowned for its superior modishness,  n’est-ce pas?) is the elegant display in the back section of French dress across the ages.

(2)  When I attended the Modern Language Association’s annual convention in late 1973 (we were searching for and interviewing possible additions to our staff),  I filled out an entry form at the kiosk which was promoting the quite new “American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,”  especially, in this venue, the Collegiate model.

I was pleased and surprised to find, via a letter in mid-January from Houghton-Mifflin publishers, that I had won a very handsome edition of the main AHD dictionary.  As the representative from the Dictionary Division of the publishing company observed,  “You have won a copy of the Founders Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.  The Founders is a special edition bound in top-grain red cowhide, with gold edges and stamping, accompanied by an attractive slip-case.”

The dictionary arrives a few days later, and I have cherished having it, though I do not consider it something that I would want to use on a daily basis.  It is not a volume for active usage,  but it is certainly a handsome critter.

What about your experience(s) with a dictionary or with dictionaries?  There’s room here for more!

All the best,



3 Responses to “Dictionaries and My Dictionaries”

  1. Jeff Thompson Says:

    I find crossword puzzle dictionaries, and there a lot of them, helpful in the expansion of vocabulary.

  2. Tammy Stephens Says:

    I use the ones on-line ones.
    Je n’ai jamais su qu’il y avait tellement beaucoup!
    We learn something new everyday!

  3. D. Says:

    My favorite ones are the American Heritage Dictionary (pocket book version–I used it in junior high school in Florida and found out it was not allowed in school because it had vulgar words in it–go figure!), the Larousse French-English/English-French dictionary (again from junior high), and Dad’s Petit Larousse which he always used. I still have those dictionaries on our bookshelf. My grandmother gave our children a large illustrated encyclopedic dictionary many years ago, and my father gave us a Scholastic illustrated dictionary when our youngest daughter turned one year old. Finally, there is the first dictionary I bought for my children by Dr. Seuss’s which all my children were taught to use at early ages. They are all being used at one time or another during the year.

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