Vagary [prob. fr. L vagari to wander]:

March 5, 2012

Sometimes I get a little fancy in the final comment of a student paper. Usually my comments are pretty direct: two or three things I like about the paper, two or three things I think need revision, and two or three remarks about style or correctness. But once in a while, out of boredom or inspiration, I grasp for a simile or a metaphor. Recently I found myself writing, "Successfully rebutting counter-arguments is not unlike slaying a hydra.”

I started with great confidence, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure I knew what a hydra is: a multiheaded creature? Yes.  But how many heads?  And can I use the word generically or do I have to capitalize it?  Would “slaying the Hydra” be the correct expression?

Since I have no Internet connectivity at home, never have, and don’t miss it, I grabbed my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary from 1965 — the kind of dictionary you can get for free at the dump or from a curbside box of discarded books — and looked up hydra. On my way to hydra, however, I got hung up on horse, startled by a picture of a horse busily covered with numbers. I knew a horse has a face, a forehead, a mouth. A nose, ears, nostrils, a neck.  A mane, hooves, a tail.

Pressed for more parts, I might have guessed that a horse had a lower jaw, a forelock (which I would have described as a tuft of hair between the ears), cheeks, ribs, a breast, haunches, buttocks, knees, a belly.

I don’t think I would have guessed flank, loin, thighs, and shoulders, words I associate with other animals, humans, or cuts of meat.  I know I wouldn’t have guessed forearm or elbow.

What I’d thought of as an animal with a head, a mane, a tail, hooves, and a body has 36 separate parts, it seems, all enumerated in a simple design on page 401 of my dictionary.  Had I not forgotten the precise definition of a hydra, I may never have learned that a horse also has a poll, withers, a croup, a gaskin, a stifle, fetlocks, coronets, pasterns, and cannons.  (The withers are the ridge between a horse’s shoulder bones.)

Hoof is defined and illustrated on the page opposite the horse, an alphabetical coincidence.  That picture too caught my eye, now that I was in an equine frame of mind.  For the moment, I wanted to learn everything I could about the horse. The unshod hoof, it turns out, has a wall with four parts — the toe, the sidewalls, quarters, and buttresses — a white line, bars, a sole, and a frog, behind which lie the bulbs.

Eventually I returned to my original search. A Hydra with a capital H is a nine-headed monster of Greek mythology whose power lies in its regenerative abilities: if one head is cut off, two will grow in its place unless the wound is cauterized. With a lower case h, the word stands for a multifarious evil that cannot be overcome by a single effort. After all this dictionary work, I’m not sure hydra is the word I want.

I've been thinking about dictionaries lately. The writing center at Smith College, where I work, is transitioning from paper schedules to an online appointment system, and yesterday we spent part of the morning moving furniture around trying to create room for a new computer station dedicated to scheduling. One of my younger colleagues suggested getting rid of the dictionary stand, which, he said, "nobody uses." I bristled. It’s a beautiful thing, the dictionary, an oversize third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, just a hair over 2,000 pages. For more than a dozen years it’s resided in a cozy nook on a well-lit lectern below a framed poster publicizing the 1994 Annual Katharine Ashen Engel Lecture by Murray Kiteley, then Sophia Smith Professor of Philosophy. The poster was chosen as much for its elegance as for the lecture’s title: "Parts of Speech, Parts of the World: A Match Made in Heaven? Or Just Athens?"

For years I had an office across from the dictionary and never used it myself, preferring the handiness of my taped-up 1958 American College Dictionary by Random House. The American Heritage is too massive. It takes me too long to find a word and I get easily distracted: by illustrations and unusual words. I continue to find my college dictionary completely adequate for my purposes. I’ve never needed a word that I couldn’t find in it.  

Another colleague within earshot spoke up for the American Heritage, claiming he used it once in a while. "Maybe," I thought. More likely, he didn’t want to contemplate the loss of the big dictionary while he still mourned the loss of the blue paper schedules. The dictionary stayed: words, that’s what a writing center is about, and the dictionary is where they live.

I cannot remember the last time I saw one of my students using a paper dictionary, much less one carrying one around, not even an international student. Have today’s students ever instinctively pulled out a paper dictionary and used it to look up a word or check its spelling? Is a paper dictionary as quaint as a typewriter? Have things changed that much? I wonder. Is it partly my fault? It’s been many years, after all, since I’ve listed "a college dictionary" among the required texts for my writing course.

I doubt my students use dictionaries much, of whatever kind. You have to care about words to reach for the dictionary, and I don’t think they care very much about words. At their age, I probably didn’t either, though I think I did care more about right and wrong. I was embarrassed when I used the wrong word or misspelled a word. I still remember the embarrassment of spelling sophisticated with an f in a college paper, something a modern spell checker doesn’t allow. But it does allow "discreet categories" for "discrete categories," another unforgettably embarrassing error — this one in graduate school!

My students appear cheerfully to accept whatever the spell checker suggests, or whatever word sounds like the one they want, especially if they’re in roughly the same semantic domain.  They are positively proud to confess that they’re bad spellers — who among them isn’t? — and really don’t seem to care much that they have used the wrong word.  Words don’t appear to be things you choose anymore. They’re things that pop up:  in autocorrect, in spell checkers, in synonym menus. They are not things you ponder over, they are things you click, or worse, your laptop decides to click for you.

When I meet with a student about her paper, we always work with a paper copy. Even so, more often than not I still have to remind her to take a pencil so she can annotate her draft as we discuss it. Toward the end of our meetings, we talk about word choice and the exchange often goes like this:

"Is this the word you want?"

"I think so."

"I think here you might have meant to say blah."

"Oh, yeah, that’s right" and out comes the pencil — scratch this, scribble that, lest it affect her final grade. No consideration, no embarrassment. I used to pull out the dictionary "to inculcate good habits," but no more. In the presence of today’s students, pulling out a dictionary feels as remote as pulling out a typewriter or playing a record.

Sometimes the situation is not so clear-cut. The student might, for example, write a word like security in a context where it makes a bit of sense, but after some gentle prodding and, yes, a few pointed suggestions, she might decide that what she really means is privacy. Out comes the pencil again. Scratch "security," scribble "privacy." What she really means is safety, though, I think, but I let it go. If I push too hard, she’ll stop thinking I'm being helpful and begin to think I have a problem: "What a nitpicker! The man’s obsessed with words!" I imagine her complaining to her friends. "But it matters! It matters!" goes the imaginary dialogue. "What precisely were the opponents of the ERA arguing, that it would violate security, invade privacy, or threaten safety?"

I have used the online Webster's on occasion, of course, and recognize the advantages of online dictionaries: They can be kept up-to-date more easily, they can give us access to more words than a standard portable dictionary, they can be accessed anywhere at any time, they take up no shelf space, etc. I'm not prejudiced against online reference tools. In fact, unlike many of my colleagues, I'm a great fan of online encyclopedias and a lover of Wikipedia. Online dictionaries leave me cold, though. They should fill me with awe the way Wikipedia sometimes does, but they don't. I marvel at the invention of the dictionary every time I look up a word in my paper copy; at the brilliant evolutionary step of such a book; at the effort of generations of scholars, professionals and lay people that led to such a comprehensive compendium of words; at how much information — and not just word meanings — it puts at my fingertips; at how much I still have to learn; and at how much my education could still be enhanced if I read my college dictionary cover to cover.

I think of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which the author makes a powerful statement about the dictionary as a pedagogical tool. Frustrated with his inarticulateness in writing while in prison and his inability to take charge of a conversation like his fellow inmate Bimbi, Malcolm X came to the conclusion that what he needed was "to get hold of a dictionary — to study, to learn some words." The experience was a revelation: "I’d never realized so many words existed!" He started at the beginning and read on, learning not just words but also history — about people, places, and events. "Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia," he noted. The dictionary was the start of his "homemade education."

Online all I get is quick definition of the word I want, and I’m done. On paper I get the definition plus something akin to a small education along the way. The experience is not unlike that of slaying the Hydra: For every word I word I look up, I see two others whose meaning I don’t know. If I were Hercules I could put an end to the battle once and for all, but I’m not, and glad I’m not. The battle is far too delicious. But how to convince my students?

Bio

Julio Alves is the director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning at Smith College.

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