The Unusual and Irrational Obsessions of Writers

Standard

Miranda Margulies: We can get the Times to write something. Or that nut from the Observer.
Kathleen Kelly: Wait, what… what nut from the Observer?
Miranda Margulies: Frank something? The one who’s so in love with his typewriter. This is just the sort of thing that would outrage him!
You’ve Got Mail

Most writers have unusual obsessions. For Frank Navasky in You’ve Got Mail, it was his typewriters (yes, plural – he had several). For me, it’s my dictionaries (yes, plural – I have more dictionaries than Frank had typewriters). I’ve written previously about how my dictionary is the one book I can’t live without, specifically my Macquarie International English Dictionary.

But the version I have was published in 2004 (which was when I bought it), making it twelve years old and meaning it doesn’t contain any of the words invented in the intervening period or reflect changes in how English is used (and as much as pedants would prefer there weren’t, there are always changes).

Last year, when I was using it to ensuring spelling accuracy and consistency as I edited Project December: A Book about Writing, I thought it would do the job well enough. But it was in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to put off buying a new dictionary for much longer. And this year, when I was hired (and subsequently paid) to edit an autobiography, I knew the time had come.

So I am now the owner of a brand new, sixth edition Macquarie Dictionary, self-described as Australia’s national dictionary. And I’m using it. But I still have an irrational attachment to my old dictionary.

Irrational how? you might ask. Well, I had the opportunity to give it away, to pass it on to a place where it would be used. My sister complained that the school-approved dictionary my nephew, currently in Grade 4, owned and was using was severely deficient. Words on his spelling list (such as “beautiful”) weren’t in his condensed dictionary and words that children in Grade 4 really don’t need to be checking the spelling and definitions of (such as “masturbate”, “rape” and “sex”) were sprinkled liberally throughout the book.

I told her he could have one of my “proper” dictionaries. I had plenty to spare, I assured her, especially since I was planning to buy a new one. I went home and took my favourite dictionary from the shelf and almost immediately put it back. Because I couldn’t bring myself to give it away. My emotional attachment to it was just too strong. Instead, I gave him another dictionary, a perfectly serviceable dictionary, a proper unabridged dictionary.

I also gave my two nephews aged eight and ten a challenge. If they could find a mistake in the dictionary I gave them, I would hand over one hundred dollars. I have no idea if there are any mistakes in their dictionary but I’ve never seen two children more interested in reading a reference book. They haven’t yet figured out that it was a carefully crafted ploy to get them reading. They read plenty, every day by themselves and every night as a family, but I thought maybe I could make them love reading the dictionary as much as I do. We’ll see. I haven’t had to pay out that one hundred dollars yet but I’ve seen them poring over the dictionary entries, trying their little hearts out.

Perhaps I should do the same – put my favourite old dictionary away and pore over the new one. I might learn to love it in the same way.

But I doubt it.

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