Clyde, Time Was: Dictionaries and the words we say — or don’t

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 13, 2017

By Clyde

Special to the Salisbury Post

Time was, we used a dictionary. Each desk had one, together with a Roget’s Thesaurus and maybe a Bartlett’s Quotations. You could write an essay eloquently. With the initiative to “look it up,” there was always a wise guy in the room who would quip, “How can you look it up if you don’t know how to spell it?”

Ever stop to look up the word “dictionary” in the dictionary? Turns out it comes from “dictum” in Latin, which means “words we say.” After three years of Latin in college preparatory classes, we learned it is a dead language, not spoken. Guess they forgot how to talk to each other. But there was a page called “Latin lives today” with modern relevance — unlike the same smart aleck who asked why we would ever need algebra in real life.

Words come and go. We sling them around, abuse them, curse people with them or hold them back — or a few still write poetry with them. The root word and derivation are very enlightening to read now that it is totally replaced by Mr. Wikipedia. No book needed. No book bag. No dust jacket.

Just for fun, “look up” the word “line.” You find trout line, troll line, deadline, guideline, dateline, timeline, frontline, pick-up lines, dance line, line out, line up, tow the line, beeline, fine line, draw the line and read between the lines, to cite a few. All from the word “linea,” meaning linen thread in Latin. Get it? Line. Clever.

Logic has not been lost; we have just forgotten how to apply it. Those Romans knew how to get the most out of everything while only wearing a toga (tegere: to cover), thinking in the Parthenon (temple named for the fifth century Greek virgin).

Pronunciation is included in the dictionary for those who know what a schwa (Hebrew) is, or for Yankees who don’t know how to say “Sawsberry” Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, words are in the ear of the listener. Words have been around for a long time. Who uttered the first one, do you suppose? And what woman was there to listen? They were not created in the Garden of Eden to bring out evil into the world.

You can choose your own words. Street talk is at an all time level of vulgarity. Words are acceptable now that would have brought your grandparents to their knees or made parents leave the PG-13 theater with their small children’s ears covered. Vulgar is the new naughty, thanks mostly to rap music’s acceptance. Blame those liberal actors who continue to push the button in the movies we pay to hear.

In Japan there are no double standards or words “you can’t say.” Words are words. 18,000 plus Kanji characters written in ink with a brush. Above that, there are honorific prefixes on words like tea, rice, earth, water — and grandparents that demand respect each time you say them.

Other totally useless information is in your dictionary down on the bottom shelf. Like, active volcanoes (in case you have enough time to go look it up). Outdated government jobs and amendments yet to be changed by Mr. Trump. How the days and months got their names or even the seven wonders of the ancient world, medieval and modern world. A prize to anyone living today who can name even one of them.

There are 1960s space age words and hundreds of brand new words each year, like “FLOTUS” (First Lady of the United States) or “throw shade” or “facepalm,” for the scrolling crowd. In the art world, black is all colors mixed, and white is the absence of color.

If an etymologist reads the n-word page, does he skip “that word?” Words mean different things at different times in history. Are there other words we can’t say aloud? Where are our First Amendment Rights? Don’t go outside on the sidewalks of Salisbury if you don’t want to hear them. Words have become more hurtful, more damning and more threatening.

The words ravel and unravel mean the same thing. The same words can be used to inspire, condone, praise, thank, unite. Just don’t use the wrong word at the wrong time. Be sure you pick the right word from your handy pocket dictionary that you carry along with you daily.

Clyde, who has dropped his last name, is a Salisbury artist.