The flame Webster kindled

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

I really like scarves.

The first scarf I bought for myself was in the window of a women’s dress shop on South Grand in St. Louis. I passed by that Vera* number one too many times on my way home from school. It would accent the navy blue dress I just finished. Very nicely. In fact, I wore the Vera scarf with that very dress on the flight I took to LA when I left home for college. And, come to think of it, I also wore a scarf for the picture I had taken for my college yearbook. You may be getting a bead on why, over the years, I’ve even been called the Scarf Lady more than a of couple of times.

A few years ago, a made a new friend who noticed my penchant for them. She had gradually accumulated quite a stash of her own and decided to pass them along to someone who would actually wear them. Oh my goodness, I instantly went from “scarf sufficient” to “scarf wealthy” with her generous gesture. I mean, I could wear a different scarf every day for well over a month without any repetition. My version of hog heaven.

The thing about scarves, once you acquire enough of them, is that they can create so many different looks. They come in a variety of shapes, and each of these shapes (large square, small square, oblong) depending on whether you twist, drape, knot or loop it, can be worn in a variety of ways. Most scarves are prints, and these color combinations placed on different solid color garments will create distinctly different looks. Combine these two aspects, and the possibilities are virtually endless. It becomes a way of greatly expanding one’s wardrobe without actually buying any new clothes. And I get a buzz out of conjuring yet another new combination or look.

It’s very much the same with words. They too come in various sizes, shapes, hues, and textures. They can be twisted, looped, and draped. And when you place them in new combinations or place the on different backgrounds, letting their colors blend or contrast, the process can be oh so fascinating and the results quite stunning. Sometimes you can even see things you never noticed before.

I think I learned to love words early on. I was six years old when my dad showed me a calligraphy instruction book and left me at the dining table to practice drawing loops and ovals and slanted lines. I didn’t bore of the practice because I knew the result would be beautifully written words. Though I was still writing fairly simple words at that time, and was aware of my vocabulary limitations, I still wanted to make my words look lovely. I think I sensed their value and wanted to demonstrate that.

It wasn’t too many years later that I began to put words together in creative ways and delighting myself with how they sounded. Homeroom teachers taught about limericks and haiku and metered verse. How fancy was that! And they also delved into roots of words and prefixes and suffixes and showed how words came to be and how they could be fashioned into new words by adding and subtracting. Wow. This was all so intriguing. I would have studied English all day long, if I had my way, but they always made us put away the grammar, vocabulary and spelling books too soon, yielding to the call of the science or math or social studies educator within them. But, in my way of thinking, English still won out because they couldn’t teach a single thing (at least in Heartland, USA) without utilizing English. Heh heh.

My word lovin’ heart swelled the day I realized our family maintained possession of a two volume Webster’s dictionary. These books commanded a proper place on a shelf in our living room. What a gold mine! I mean, a person could get lost in their pages! I would take one of them off the shelf, intending to look up the meaning of a particular word, then notice that the word above or below it was also pretty interesting, and then the illustration across the page would grab my attention, and before you know it, I’d have spent quite some time poring over the entries — all of them rich. Not that I’d remember a fraction of the definitions I’d just read after closing the book, or anything. I just loved sounding them out, reading what they meant, what original language they’d come from and the various ways they could be pronounced.

Passion for my native tongue continued to deepen as I grew older. When I got to high school, I spent a slightly inordinate amount of time at the unabridged dictionary that was parked on a book stand near the check out desk. (The librarians rubbed all the wood furnishings in the library with lemon oil, so there was that added attraction.)

Eventually, I left academic settings and moved into a small apartment as a new bride. Between the two of us, we had exactly one fairly decent abridged dictionary. But it could be parked standing upright on a book shelf or between a couple of book ends, so this was no real dictionary. A real dictionary needed to command its own space, to spread its covers wide open, revealing the 24 carat nuggets on its ivory pages. In all honesty, a real dictionary needed its own stand.

But we were cash-strapped back in the day, and I had to content myself with our modest tome. A few years later, I began to work the New York Times crossword puzzles in the Sunday paper. There would generally be a couple of obscure words I wouldn’t know and more than a few of the puzzles ended up unfinished. I also began testing myself with the Words of Power vocabulary quizzes in the Reader’s Digest.

On our tenth anniversary, my husband entered the living room. default

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” he said.

“You do?”

“Uh-huh.”

He ducked back into his office and then hollered, “Close your eyes.” I complied. And then he stopped in front of me.

“You can open them now.”

Before me was a most gorgeous sight: sporting a deep blue cover and gold embossed lettering was a massive Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged. I swooned.

“Oh, my… thank you!” I gushed.

“Now maybe you’ll have the help you need for those crossword puzzles,” he said with a little grin. And so I did… 

For years to come, that beloved book commanded center stage in our living room, spread open on a cedar chest for easy access. (I priced book stands, but sticker shock prevented me from actually bringing one into our home.) Amazingly, my two younger children never took a crayon or marker to it. Perhaps they intuitively perceived that Mom’s dictionary was sacrosanct.

I made my way to the dictionary on nearly a daily basis — because there are always shades of meaning to ferret out, spellings to confirm, pronunciations to get right. And most times, my eyes would wander to neighboring selections on the same page as the one I went to look up. These adjacent entries lurked right there on those pages, making siren calls to reel me in, at the expense of unwatched pots that boiled over on the stove as I dallied.

On a few occasions I have been asked to share what the best gift I ever received was. At the top of the list is that dictionary, not for its cash value, but because in giving it to me my husband communicated the extent to which he got me. And that still wows me. I so loved that book.

Today, the Webster’s Unabridged is in a book case. Right next to other reference books that have been rendered nearly obsolete by the internet. Nowadays, with just the click of a mouse, I pull up the word, its spelling, root, pronunciation and plural right before my eyes, PLUS a link to the same word in a thesaurus, where a zillion other related words hang out. Perusing these cousins and discerning their shades of meaning is wildly satisfying and can easily steal my attention away from other, more needful pursuits.

I sort of miss the smell and feel of the pages in that big honkin dictionary, but overall I’m fairly content with the digital trade off. After all, its not really the means by which I access them, but the words themselves that I truly love.

Thank you, Mr. Webster.

[* Vera Neuman was a wildly popular textile designer in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s whose vintage scarves are now collectibles. Wish I’d have hung on to that original scarf…]

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