My Relationship With Dictionaries


reference booksThe Daily Post today is about dictionaries. It concludes with the question what dictionaries are to me and if I have any favorites.

Well, it wasn’t love at first sight, I can tell you that. In fact, I avoided dictionaries as a youngster–too much hassle. I preferred the DIY method: inference through context.

As a student in library school I learned extensively about all imaginable dictionaries, but it was one of the most boring classes. Probably because the teacher had the stage presence of a bibliography of bibliographies. Dictionaries were a necessity, a useful tool, but I still wasn’t turned on.

Now that I’m a translator, several decades later, I can’t get enough of them. I might even go so far as to say I’m a dictionary addict.

I translate from Dutch to English, so it all started with the definitive Dutch-English dictionary, the Van Dale Nederlands-Engels Woordenboek. Having seriously started translating not long before my last visit to the Netherlands–now nine years ago!–I was able to buy the big fat thing there and bring it back with me.

But I soon felt that it didn’t fulfill my needs, so I branched out, if you know what I mean.

My collection expanded rapidly. Before long, I had several shelves of dictionaries. Not only dictionaries related to the English language, such as slang and old English dictionaries, but also those related to the subjects I was translating. For instance, when I was translating a section of a novel set in Azerbaijan, I needed a dictionary of Muslim names. And then I found I wanted more  name dictionaries. I was insatiable.

I continued collecting paper dictionaries and other reference books long after I could find most of what I needed online, because I truly enjoyed their company. I cherished my collection, I loved it; I brought home a new acquisition regularly. I was never neglectful. And I continued looking things up in my paper dictionaries. I was faithful, I really was. There’s nothing like looking a word up in a book, the sensual feeling of the paper as I flip through pages in that systematic way we learned back in library school–or so I told myself.

Until I got a laptop.

I never meant to leave my paper dictionaries, but when I was able to work on the couch in the living room, or in a coffee shop, or in the backyard, well, it just happened. I started looking up words online instead of going to the office. Just a few at first, but the sense of freedom it gave me was too strong. I couldn’t stop, and I knew I had to face the truth:  my paper dictionaries had held me back all those years, kept me tied to my home office like a ball and chain!

I suddenly saw them in a completely different light. They had always been rather heavy. And they’re so passive! I always had to do all the work; they took no initiative at all. Now online dictionaries, oh my! They’re so light, like they don’t weigh anything. And they’re youthful, playful; they string me along, teasing me, making me want more.

I haven’t cracked open a paper dictionary since. I still have my sixteen shelves of dictionaries and handbooks, and I still love all of them dearly. I will never abandon them, but I have discovered there are different kinds of love. As I’ve explained to them, one is not better than the other, or more intense, just different. They understand.

So I now have a wonderful online bookmark folder called Translation, which is subdivided into thesauri and dictionaries and usage sites and more such beautiful, sweet, scrumptious . . .

I’m getting carried away. Moving on. The question was whether I have any favorites.

I do. Thesaurasize. Painful as it might be for those of you with traditional paper values to read this, I can lose myself in Thesaurasize in a way I never could in the Van Dale Nederlands-Engels Woordenboek.

It’s a thesaurus, as you may have guessed–not a dictionary, strictly speaking. But I don’t judge, and it’s gorgeous. It offers me synonyms, obviously, but I also use it as a reverse dictionary when I feel lost. Or when I want to keep an open mind, broaden my horizons, when I feel stuck in a rut. And it has this little, chubby  dinosaur logo . . . too cute!

When I type a word in Thesaurasize, it offers me such a big, long list of all the words that are even remotely related–any part of speech, even. A veritable smorgasbord. And when I click on any of the words in the list, I get another list. And then I can click on another word, and another list appears, and I can click on another . . . oh, too much!

By default the words in a list are arranged alphabetically, but, considerate as Thesaurasize is,  I can also arrange words by size, which was quite handy when I was trying to make a pyramid poem the other day.

The result was unsatisfactory, but that wasn’t Thesaurasize’s fault. Definitely not. It was me–my imagination was not at its peak performance that day. And that’s nothing to worry about. It happens to everyone. No big deal. We’ll try again sometime and then it will work just fine, you’ll see. Together we’ll create a pyramid poem of staggering height . . .

So Thesaurasize is my favorite, but that doesn’t stop me from having fun with other dictionaries. At one point I needed a dictionary with sailing terms, and I ran into a delicious series of online Dutch-English dictionaries by MWB (Mijn Woordenboek) on a whole range of topics, including construction, law, agriculture . . . So I bookmarked them all for future use. Oh, the fun we will have!

I had to translate a section of a Flemish children’s book not too long ago that had a character who spoke in a heavy Flemish dialect. That’s when I used a lot of Scottish, Cornish, Yorkshire and other regional British dialect dictionaries, in the process of figuring out what voice to give this character. I gave each of them a trial run, but I wasn’t really into it. I’ve got those dictionaries’ numbers in my bookmark folder, though. In case I ever want a little strange.

I always glance somewhat guiltily at my wall of paper dictionaries whenever I enter our home office. Even though we have an open relationship, I can’t help feeling that I’m cheating on them. But being able to bookmark every useful online dictionary I come across is just too attractive a proposition. It’s so easy–how can I resist? Looking at the complete series of MWB special dictionary bookmarks makes me feel all warm and tingly inside.

What a cornucopia of information! Right here on my lap!

I would love to know what you think, even about old posts.

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