I’m a dinosaur.
In this age of smart phones and online dictionaries, I own two physical dictionaries.
You know, dictionaries.
Big, heavy books filled with definitions. About as up-to-date as telephones that plug into the wall, sit on a shelf and stay inside when you leave the house.
I have carted them across the United States twice, including a move from Arizona to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and then to Colorado. After that, I hauled them from Colorado to Alaska, giving them a chance to glimpse a good chunk of western Canada on the way.
I have finally decided to get rid of them. Not because of Marie Kondo, but because of my daughter.
Not all that long ago, I had the bright idea to show her how to find a word in a so-called real dictionary. She went along with it.
She gave me the sort of indulgent look that kids give tech-idiot adults like me when we don’t understand something about Bluetooth or Wi-Fi or touch screens that every modern toddler innately gets, but she went along with it.
I set my trusty Merriam-Webster, which I’d purchased before she was born, on the table and opened it up at random.
She asked, tongue in cheek, “Do you just guess where the words are?”
I have no idea where she gets her sarcasm from.
“You see these words at the top?” I said. “They’re called guide words. They show you the words at the beginning and the end of the pages you have open.”
She flipped a few pages with exaggerated slowness, hoping, I imagined, that this demonstration of the method’s obvious downside would allow me to finally grasp the superiority of digital technology over analog and decide to stop wasting my time with technology only slightly more advanced than clay tablets and dedicate myself to getting better at using my phone.
She flipped her way into the Fs and I flashed back to this one time, not at band camp, but in Canada, when I was looking through a different dictionary and was surprised by what I found.
It was the early 2000s. The decade some people are calling The Aughts. I was proofreading a magazine article extolling the lifestyle and personal coolness benefits of living in a loft when I ran into the word checker plate. The author was advocating installing it in the kitchen.
I had no idea what checker plate was, looked like, or liked for breakfast. Maybe it was some sort of checkered tile pattern like Tom Petty used in the Don’t Come Around Here No More video.
I was proofreading in Canadian English, so I reached for my snazzy new Canadian Oxford Dictionary. I flipped a few pages, heading for the Cs. The word bafflegab caught my eye.
I was flabbergasted.
So I read the definition.
The Canadian Oxford dictionary bafflegab as official or professional jargon which confuses more than it clarifies. Helpfully, the dictionary included a diagram of how the word came to be: [baffle v. + gab].
My distraction would have stopped there if the editors hadn’t included the assertion that the word was used throughout North America.
At that point in my life I had lived on both US coasts and a couple states in between and I’d never heard it. Or run across it while reading. So I decided to check my Merriam-Webster, which said: gobbledygook.
Date of first usage was given as 1952.
I found the difference in the supplementary information interesting. The Canadian dictionary provided algebraic etymology ([baffle v. + gab]) and a note on geographical usage. The American dictionary gave a relatively uncommon word as a definition, the date it was first used, and not a single hoot that it might be used elsewhere.
Fully distracted now, I looked up gobbledygook. I discovered it could also be spelled “gobbledegook,” though this wasn’t preferred, that it was first used in 1944, and that it means “wordy and generally unintelligible jargon.” A sufficient definition and close to the Canadian definition of bafflegab, which was nice.
Hoping to get back on task, I went back to the Canadian Oxford and flipped a chunk of pages. I missed checker plate by a long shot, because I landed in the Fs, just like my daughter would, years in the future.
Where I found a surprising guide word.
Right on top of page 524.
I’ve got nothing against fist-fucking, the word or the practice, but I was surprised to see it up there on top there for the world to see.
No reason for it not to be there, once I thought about it, that’s just how the words ended up on the pages when they put the dictionary together.
But I will admit I had expected the dictionary to be a little more staid.
“Sorry honey, I was just remembering one time a long time ago when I was looking up a word.”
“You’re remembering looking up a word?” A look of concern passed across her face. “Dad, that’s weird.”
“I know, Kiddo. But you’re used to that with me, aren’t you?”
“Oh my God, yes.”
“I won’t tell your friends about it if you don’t.”
We shook on it.
“What word were you thinking of?” Her hand was resting on the dictionary, still somewhere in the Fs.
Wishing to avoid a discussion of fist-fucking with my 12-year old daughter, I used a tactic I have found to be useful as a parent.
This time, it would backfire on me in just a few minutes.
“Checker plate,” I said.
“It’s that bumpy metal that’s on the trailer.”
“That’s what it’s called?”
“Or diamond plate or tread plate. The bumps keep the metal from wearing away when we walk on it or something scrapes against it.”
“Why were you looking it up?”
“I didn’t know what it was called back then. I was proofreading a magazine article. The author suggested putting it up in the kitchen.”
“No.” She made a face.
“I don’t think it is a good idea either.”
“I’ll look it up.”
She started to flip the pages.
Which is when I realized I had screwed myself.
“Hold on, Kiddo.”
“It’s not in there.”
“How do you know?”
“When I tried to look it up, it wasn’t there.”
After failing to find checker plate in the Canadian Oxford, I had checked Merriam-Webster. Nothing there.
“So how do you know what it means?”
“I looked it up online.”
My daughter looked at me for a long moment. Then she closed the dictionary.
I was reminded of that episode when I decided to get with the times and get rid of my paper dictionaries. I’m going to download dictionaries onto my phone in case I have a proofreading crisis when both my data and the Wi-Fi are down.
And I am telling myself that going the way of the dinosaurs doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The dinosaurs — some of them anyway — evolved into birds, and I like to think I’m doing the same thing: I’m getting lighter and more streamlined as time goes on.