Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Birthday, Dictionary

UPDATED 6:16 p.m., two typos fixed: Note to self, if you write about copy editing or dictionaries, proofread really carefully.

I don't have many prized possessions. Actually, to be truthful, I don't have many unprized possessions. I am a pack rat of the first rank.

Among the myriad junk that I have collected over the years, however, a few things stand out.

It may be silly, but one of these things is my Webster's New World College Dictionary, third edition.

My copy turned 10 years old yesterday. It was a Christmas present from my parents in 1997. Luckily, I had the foresight to jot that down on the inside cover at the time. Otherwise I might have forgotten.

December 1997 was an exciting time. I was one semester away from graduation from New Mexico State University, and I had just learned that the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund had selected me as a summer 1997 intern.

Dow Jones is a very competitive internship, and I wanted it badly. Moreover, my Dow Jones internship had a Bay Area tie -- and I was in love with the Bay Area (I still am). First, I would train for two weeks at San José State University, and then I would work the summer at The Modesto Bee as a copy editor.

And to be a copy editor, you needed a dictionary. Not just any dictionary, mind you. You needed the dictionary. You couldn't have one editor spell the world "traveler" with one "l" and the next spell it "traveller." You needed a uniform tie-breaker. (My dictionary prefers the single "l").

First we turn to the Associated Press Stylebook. That was our bible. I miss it, really. I used to know that thing inside and out. When the new edition came out while I worked at the Albuquerque Journal, I went through it entry by entry charting the changes. We distributed the list in the newsroom. I think that I still have a copy somewhere. Anyway, I digress.

The Stylebook covered a lot of ground. But it did not cover all of the ground. And when it fell short, the Stylebook pointed to Webster's New World College Dictionary, third edition, or as we called it NW3.

Since I was going to be a "big boy" journalist in a few weeks, I needed a "big boy" dictionary. Before I had time to buy one myself, my parents gave me this one for Christmas in 1997.

The dictionary that you see above finished out the year at NMSU's student newspaper, The Round Up. It made the road trip to San José. It spent 10 weeks at The Bee. Then it road tripped back to Las Cruces, where it sat on my desk as a reporter and then sports editor. Then it moved with us to Albuquerque. And I won't bore you with all the trips that it made through graduate school. However, it is bicoastal, having lived in both California and New York. Here it sits today in the middle, Texas.

Late in the evening of Christmas Eve this year, I was sitting beside the fireplace reading Walden, which I of course should have read many, many years ago. On my lap was NW3, as the 1840s Thoreau tends to use words not used today. And while I scanned that dictionary, somehow a spark went off in my mind.

And all of a sudden I stopped. Looked up the way you do when you're scanning memory, and I thought "I think this dictionary is 10 years old."

So I flipped to the inside cover, and sure enough in my embarrassingly childlike handwriting was "12/25/97." In a couple of hours, NW3 would indeed turn 10.

I am sure that a lot of dictionaries are given. And I am sure that a lot of dictionaries are begrudgingly received. Perhaps none was so welcomely received as this one. It's been a real friend during this past decade -- a better friend indeed than several humans who would label themselves as such.

There's a new edition out now. Maybe two. I need to buy the new one. Words change. Languages are alive, after all.

But don't worry. NW3's not going anywhere. Sure, the cover is held on by duct tape. Sure, the corners of the pages are discolored by thousands of searches. But this dictionary is like part of the family. And it will always remind me of a time marked by boundless optimism.

Thanks for the dictionary, mom and dad. As presents go, it was tops.

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Anonymous Ashley Meeks said...

Happy birthday, dictionary!

- Ashley Meeks, your successor many times over at the Sun-News education beat (who must pedantically point out "I used to know that think inside and out.")

3:06 PM  
Blogger Samuel D. Bradley said...

Thanks ... one great benefit of the blog over traditional newspapers ... typo correction!

6:14 PM  

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