Saturday, November 19, 2011

Life In A Metro: Death Of The Dictionary

Who needs a doorstop of a book when a right click is right at hand?

The first dictionary that I ever owned was won by me in a drawing competition at school. It was the first prize, a miniature dictionary bound in red, which I still preserve. Below her signature the principal had inscribed the date, '17.11.79' – which means I was nine years old then, most likely in the fourth standard. For many years after that I did not need another dictionary: the 5,000 or so entries in that tiny gem were more than sufficient to define the world I lived in.

I vaguely remember buying a dictionary much later, perhaps in high school, though I have no particular memories of it, which is very strange. All I remember is that I bought it only to prevent my prized possession from being shredded to pieces. But once I became an adult and decided to make a living out of the written word, I began to invest in voluminous dictionaries – the heavier the better. It was as good as bringing home a teacher who would look over your shoulder while you read a book or wrote a report, and at other times would sit patiently on your desk.

There is something venerable about the dictionary. It's a sage, grandfather, headmaster, teacher, judge, cop – all rolled, rather bound, into one. It's an institution by itself and perhaps the only thing in the world that is capable of making anyone, no matter how educated and accomplished, feel small. After all, the dictionary always knows something that you don't.

Of all the dictionaries I possess today, my favourite remains the One Hour Wordpower Dictionary, co-published by The Sunday Times of London. Simply because it was the first purchase I made after arriving in Delhi to join PTI as a probationary journalist, way back in 1994. I had bought it from a bookshop on Janpath; its pages have since yellowed and I don't think it's still in print. I also like it because it does not follow the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for pronunciations. If you want to know how the word 'jugular' sounds, it simply tells you: jug-yoo-la. Subsequently, from a book fair in Pragati Maidan, I bought the BBC English Dictionary. And then many more. It is a different matter that most of them remained untouched, their pages accessed only by particles of dust.

Today, the dictionary-buying days are way behind me. I no longer need one. Why just me? When was the last time you actually reached out for one? Haven't you been right-clicking on words all this while? But remember, each time you right-click on a word, the sale of dictionaries drops by one percent – okay, I just made up that figure, but I can't be way off the mark. A distributor told me the other day that bookshops were indeed recording a decline in the sale of not just dictionaries but reference books as a whole. Reference books, he said, are fast migrating to the textbook category and it is just a matter of time before general bookshops stop stocking dictionaries and encyclopedias.

I am not shedding a tear. But one fear grips me every now and then: what if I am asked to write a test in written English, with nothing but a pen and a few A-4 sheets at my disposal? I will stand completely exposed! To begin with, I wouldn't know how to spell ‘manoeuvre' (I actually had to dig out a dusty dictionary to type out the word for your benefit because spellcheck gives only the American spelling). I wouldn't even know whether it is ‘focused' or ‘focussed.'

Since I've already crossed the age of 40, it is unlikely that I will ever be asked to write a test again, but you never know. Imagine a 40-year-old journalist not knowing how to spell ‘manoeuvre'. The horror it will evoke, according to me, will be just as bad as the one that will strike you when you arrive in a strange town to find your mobile phone missing. You can't even call your wife to inform her about your plight because you never felt the need to remember her number. You are as good as a lost child who remembers what his home looks like but doesn't know how to get there. So much for the dependence on gadgets.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 19, 2011.


Anonymous said...

you have already celebrated the death of the pen.Dictionaries i never liked consulting,they're too bulky.mY mobile has a dictionary now.even My teacher knows assignments are ccp's-cut,copy,paste.
somehow the thought process,creativity and memory are all enervated.
And everything is fine till you can give us string garlanded posts such as these with e-dictionary close at hand.

Anonymous said...

you reminded me of the big black & red book, that quietly stands in the corner of my bookshelf, patiently waiting for its turn...

and you are right, it hasn’t come for a while !

lovely post :)


Desi Babu said...

Dear Ghosh Babu,

I can't remember when I last used a dictionary. That may have something to do with the fact that I mostly write on a computer, and nowadays, almost every software warns you when you spell your potatoe wrong. Even Dan Quayle can't get it wrong now!

A few days ago, I used pen and paper after quite some time -- to do a lot of complicated math. I probably wrote as many letters in Greek, as I did in English. But
I didn't have the need for a dictionary in either language.

I don't know if it is time for an epitaph and a requiem yet. May be, in another decade or so?


Sepiamniac said...

So agree. Spell check reduced to those curly lines :-(

Sudeep said...

Dear BG,
What is needed is a kid to teach. In the process of teaching my kid, I not only need the English and Hindi dictionary close at hand, but also the English-to-Hindi, and Hindi-to-English ones.

You need a dictionary for more than spelling – just wait till you end up stumbling when someone starts asking you the meaning of the words that you have used all your life, know exactly how and where to use, and yet cannot come explain clearly what it means.

Sepiamniac said...

@ desi babu : nice thoughts:)

Mom With a Dot said...

Your comment about most spell check s/w recommending American English resonated completely with me. I get humiliatingly confused when my colours, favourites and stylised are mercilessly underlined in red.
However, about the primary object of your article, the dictionary, I'm happy to add that I've successfully inculcated the habit in my kids. We can only to do the best we can about things that matter to us - right ?

Shivya said...

So true. I travel often, and started carrying a notebook & pen with me to note down facts and phrases about places I've been to & people I've met. It was a futile attempt. All that goes on to my iPhone now. Would be a lost child without it, indeed.

Geetha said...

During dad's days it was the LIFCO
Mine: Oxford
The kiddo: MerriamWebster or equivalent online.
Rather than mourning, these days, i have come to embrace techonology. Same holds good for the inland letter, saree clad moms, rangolis outsisde, the rickshaw wallah list goes on.

Sunil Deepak said...

I consult my English-Hindi, English-Sanskrit and English-Italian dictionaries once in a while, when I feel that google is not giving me the right answer or when it does not know the answer (that happens and not so rarely).

Desi Babu said...

Dear Janani: Thanks!

Dear Sunil: Since you are comfortable in at least four languages, I am just curious which one would you prefer, given a choice : An English-Sanskrit Dictionary or a Hind-Sanskrit Dictionary?

For some reason, although I consider English as my first language now, the way to Sanskrit in my neural pathways is always via Hindi! Curious, isn't it?


Anonymous said...

(-+-Luv Ya-+-)