Death of the Dictionary

Nietzsche tells us that philology is the art of slow reading. Philologists naturally like to quote this tag as a part of the broader program of fetishizing slow reading and meticulous textual scrutiny, but amidst all the fictive glamor, one might lose sight of the fact that it is a habit which is instilled by compulsion in the first stages of learning ancient languages. Many of our readers have at least made a foray into the exciting world of Latin and Greek, and many will also be old enough to remember a time when early attempts at reading authentic texts in these languages required substantial dictionary thumbing.

I cannot imagine how things must be now that students have untrammeled access to wonderful resources like Logeion. Anytime they tell me that they are consulting Whitaker’s Words, I urge them to cast that garbage aside. I then draw forth the weighty, august, and extremely expensive copy of Lewis & Short which I keep in the classroom and say, “All this and more is right there on a free app.”

At the age of 32, I have begun to adopt fully the posture of the cantankerous old man, so this advice to download that revolutionary application is always accompanied by a story which begins with “Back in my day…” and ends with everyone thinking that I am hopelessly out of touch. Of course, the natural response of students when I tell them how much time I spent flipping through pages in the dictionary is that it all seems like a tremendous waste of time. To this I can only say that it was the most profitable waste of time that I ever engaged in.

Invariably, in such situations, I recur to my favorite dictionary tale: When I was first reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and trying to give it the straight cover-to-cover treatment (the first text with which I did this), I found at some point that I was looking up the word squama for what felt like the trillionth time. I was conscious of the fact that I had seen it several times before, and even seemed to have developed a muscle memory for flipping to the appropriate page, yet I could not remember the word. Those who have spent time learning the languages this way will remember the heartbreaking feeling of looking up a word, registering the meaning, and then – once your eyes have returned to the text – realizing that you have already forgotten what the word meant. And so, being conscious of the fact that I had spent so much time searching for squama, I made it a point this time to stare at the word, to read every part of the entry for it, to swish it about the palate, and to write it on the remembering tablets of my mind. I burned that word into my memory, and not only did I not have to look it up again, I strongly suspect that it is one of the most secure possessions of my mind – so well remembered that it serves as an anecdote employed at least once a year.

Dictionary work was tedious, sometimes frustrating, and even then felt like a waste of time. It is also the genesis of the Classicist’s fetishization of slow reading. Slow progress through a text because of lexical roadblocks can be illustrated in an exchange recorded by Lionel Tollemache, in which Mark Pattison grills him on the value of exclusively classical education in schools:

A trifling incident may show how strong was his antipathy to the narrow classical instruction which used to form the chief staple of our public school education. I had been talking about my own school-time at Harrow. He turned round and asked abruptly, “Did you learn anything there?” I hesitated. “Answer me, Yes or No. Can you recall a single thing worth remembering that you learnt during all the years that you spent there?” I replied that, owing to my extreme short sight and consequent slowness in looking out words in a dictionary, I was not a good sample of a Harrow boy, but that some of my schoolfellows certainly learnt much. “Yes,” he said, doubtfully, “perhaps you may be right.” [Tollemache, Recollections of Pattison]

Yet there is something to be said for the inefficiency of the method as its chief value. Dictionary work was unpleasant, so one tried to avoid it when possible. How could it be avoided? Through memorization. And so, the reluctance to open the dictionary yet again could bring about the salutary educational aim of ensuring that you tried when possible to commit new vocabulary to memory, though you had no quiz or exam on the horizon lighting the fire beneath your feet.

Today, I envy my students’ ability to answer any of their lexical queries immediately without having to carry around a massive (or even a still inconvenient pocket-sized) volume. Certainly it is more efficient than the young John Stuart Mill’s approach:

But my father, in all his teaching, demanded of me not only the utmost that I could do, but much that I could by no possibility have done. What he was himself willing to undergo for the sake of my instruction, may be judged from the fact, that I went through the whole process of preparing my Greek lessons in the same room and at the same table at which he was writing: and as in those days Greek and English lexicons were not, and I could make no more use of a Greek and Latin lexicon than could be made without having yet begun to learn Latin, I was forced to have recourse to him for the meaning of every word which I did not know. This incessant interruption, he, one of the most impatient of men, submitted to, and wrote under that interruption several volumes of his History and all else that he had to write during those years. [Mill, Autobiography]

Yet, at the same time, I am glad that I am part of the last generation to suffer through compulsory dictionary work, as I doubt very much that I would have achieved anything like my current proficiency in the languages if I had had access to something like Logeion. Perhaps one of the reasons I despise the Cambridge Latin Course the most is the fact that all new vocabulary is simply pre-translated in the book itself, so students simply look into the vocabulary box and transpose meaning onto unfamiliar words. Dictionary work required, at a minimum, recognizing the declined or conjugated form of a particular word, understanding its grammatical function, and then identifying the appropriate form to search for in the dictionary. Similarly, any students whom I have taught using texts like Phaar’s Aeneid (which provides not just a running commentary at the bottom, but even a full list of potentially difficult vocabulary) tend to be exceptionally weak readers, precisely because there is no premium placed upon the memorization – nay, the internalization – of vocabulary.

When I graduated college, my aunt wanted to get me a triple-decker of a graduation gift. I requested THE Oxford Latin Dictionary, which cost at the time something like $300. It was my first impressive dictionary (certainly better than the Cassell’s with which I bullshitted my way through college), but I can barely recall using it. It’s fun for flipping through on occasion, but I couldn’t say that I use it in any functional sense. Over the years, I have spent several hundred dollars more on other dictionaries: a full-sized LSJ that I found for $50; a 19th century edition of the LSJ; my full-sized Lewis and Short (I actually do use this one); a Lexicon Pindaricum; some smaller (and super functional) paperbacks like the Autenreith of Cunliffe Lexicons for Homer.

In terms of pure functionality, all of these have been supplanted, yet I love them nonetheless. They stand as a physical metonym for the study of Classics itself: something fetishized and quaintly outmoded, a focal point for a past seen only dimly through the roseate lens of retrospectacles. But, like Classics, they also serve as an anchor for so much in my life, and I cannot open their musty pages without a certain nostalgic warmth suffusing my heart.

The old and the new.


Flyleaf of my old LSJ

9 thoughts on “Death of the Dictionary

  1. Ah, otium and scholia incarnate!

    “…when I tell [students] how much time I spent flipping through pages in the dictionary…it all seems like a tremendous waste of time. To this I can only say that it was the most profitable waste of time that I ever engaged in.”

  2. Ah, the old humilitas grammaticorum:

    “Those who have spent time learning the languages…will remember the heartbreaking feeling of looking up a word, registering the meaning, and then – once…returned to the text – realizing that you have already forgotten what the word meant.”

  3. I find myself in the somewhat unique position of having taken up serious reading in Greek and Latin after an almost 30-year interval, and I see it both ways. Reading with the help of online dictionaries means I read substantially faster than I ever did before, and accordingly I get the benefit of reading with some momentum: e.g., “ah, there’s a version of that same unusual word that I read 50 lines back,” where “50 lines back” means an hour and not 3-4 hours ago. But you are also no doubt correct that spending less time with the physical dictionary has its own costs.

  4. I had never really considered the role of slow dictionary work in the consolidation of vocabulary. Interesting.
    I am a bit younger than you but, due to poverty, learnt my classical languages exclusively through public domain old fashioned textbooks. This naturally necessitated a lot of dictionary work (though I had the advantage of modern Greek for Greek…). When I got to university the professors all warned us of using Perseus too eagerly and I can sort of see why.
    Studies in cognitive linguistics give differing measures for how often someone has to encounter a word before they’re able to employ it and internalise it. I’ve seen numbers ranging from seven to 40! I suppose the tedious, continuous, consulting of the dictionary is somewhat akin to this.

    1. I think pacing does matter, but I think what probably matters more is how a particular learner’s brain has been shaped for learning and to learn. I think there is a paradigmatic shift in learning modalities that will make slow dictionary use and form memorization as maddening to some as pure app use is to older generations. I want to scoff at the new horizon, but I am also willing to see dictionaries and grammars as a type of analog prosthesis that is merely being replaced by a more efficient one…

      1. This intuitively makes sense for me. I think the real test in assessing pedagogy is for classicists not to ape modern linguists/SLA specialists. These guys talk a lot but seldom walk, so to speak. This is a hill I will die on. The real test is to tackle non-classical languages and see how our methodologies fare.

        Akkadian was a MASSIVE learning experience for me. Suddenly, I really started to appreciate the dictionary and the role of memorisation. Zeus bless the frequency word list.

  5. FWIW: my OLD is ever at my side, on the dictionary stand by my desk, and I consult it pretty much daily–have for many years (I’m on my third copy now, the 2-volume, second edition–the first I got when it was published in 1982). Having studied Latin since age 11–62 years now–I am delighted at learning at least a little something new every day, and the OLD is my vade mecum for that journey. Of course I use the L&S online too, and the dictionary in my SPQR app is sine qua non when I’m out & about!! 🙂

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