Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fun with Dictionaries

Students look at me with great suspicion when I say that dictionaries are fun, wondering I'm sure about just what boring material I might subject them to over the next several weeks. Then we play a game, and only the most disinterested remain bored and stoic.

The game Balderdash is based on the dictionary and on definitions, truthful or obfuscating. Long before the Balderdash game appeared, we used to play a game we called Fictionary which was very similar.

In each round of Fictionary, one person was in charge of the dictionary and finding a word that no one knew (honour system!). The dictionary holder would write out, on two separate pieces of paper, a fake definition and the real definition, paraphrased. Every other player would make up a definition and write it down, too. The dictionary holder would read all the definitions, and the others would vote for the definition they (supposedly) believed was the authentic one.

The player who received the most points (the scoring was a bit complicated) became the new dictionary holder, and so on until everyone had a turn. There was much room for strategy, especially in voting, which was fun, but my favourite memories are of the reader of the definitions being, in some cases, completely unable to read because of uncontrollable laughter. The definitions were often outrageous, always fun.

Other dictionary fun can be had in going through a dictionary of etymology, such as Skeat's. Admittedly, the opportunities for ROFL are less than with a word game, but there are some surprising and funny trajectories of words if one looks for them.

For instance, in medieval Latin, the present participle for the verb to weave is texere. We get our word "text" and "textual" from the word for weaving, which lends the activity of writing something nice and artisanal.

The Merriam-Webster people give a comprehensive explanation about how a word makes into one of their dictionaries. We often think of a dictionary as an authority - "let's look it up in the dictionary" is often the way to settle an argument (or start one!). The dictionary people, though, are not the first authority: we are. Dictionary makers record what we say and how we use a word. So usage is the way into the dictionary.

A new word or usage could be in a dictionary of slang; if it stays around and many people use it, then it might find its way into a dictionary of common usage; last, when it is used often in enough diverse places, it finds its way into the main, big dictionary.

For me, THE dictionary is The Oxford English Dictionary, or OED as it is known affectionately the world over. In print, the OED is "a massive, twenty-volume work that takes up four feet of shelf space and weighs 150 pounds."  There is a compact version in two volumes that comes with its own magnifying glass, and believe me, you do need it. The OED is now on CD and also online.

Even the original making of the OED is a fascinating story, told by Simon Winchester in two books - The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (1998) and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (2003). 

Most people, I'd guess, wouldn't think that the making of a dictionary could actually be exciting, but Winchester begs to differ, and producers Luc Besson and Mel Gibson think it worthy of a movie.

Students may never completely believe me that dictionaries can be fun,  and  maybe "fun" is too strong a term and really can only apply to language, literature, grammar nuts like me.

But a dictionary, in this case the OED, is a wealth of information and much more:
"The Oxford English Dictionary is a living document that has been growing and changing for 140 years. Far more than a convenient place to look up words and their origins, the Oxford English Dictionary is an irreplaceable part of English culture. It not only provides an important record of the evolution of our language, but also documents the continuing development of our society."

It also has the most possibilities for Fictionary anywhere.

And what's not to like about that?


askcherlock said...

You must be one of those wonderfully inspiring teachers, and worth your weight in gold. Fictionary! That brought a smile. I remember it well. If students learn a love of language, especially through means such as these, they will be well-served in life no matter what they do.

ChrisJ said...

AskCherLock, It's wonderful when the students get the language/success connection. It is getting to be a harder and harder sell, unfortunately.

Ciss B said...

I echo your feelings about the language and its words (mainly because I was a secondary English teacher for a few years)!

Many English teachers have no passion for the language and lose that sens of joy - congrats to you!

ChrisJ said...

Ciss, thank you.
I do have to remind myself that not everyone in the world shares our passion - and that it's okay. :)

Meam Wye said...

This post reminds me of my great teacher who taught us English Literature and Language in the 8th grade. We all used to bring our dictionaries to the class; for every new word that we came across, everyone wanted to be the first one to find its meaning and read it aloud to the teacher.....giggling & excitedly rushing to the teachers desk to show her our 'discoveries' and her constant patient smile with never a word of irritation at that childish behavior made learning so much fun! We used to respect and love her so much; the minute she started speaking, there was immediate silence with all the noise subdued. I'm lucky to be in contact with her even now after two decades.

I learned many new things from your wonderful post. Thank you very much.

ChrisJ said...


What a wonderful memory. I'm glad the post triggered it for you.

Thank you for commenting.

Ciss B said...

What a wonderful memory of learning! When it comes to English, I know many a teacher that does it by rote and forgets that there are really so many ways to make the learning fun even in English.