Connie Eble

This is an occasional essay, that old-fashioned genre written for or about an occasion.  What prompted it was my giving several children copies of The Dictionary of Difficult Words, compiled and written by lexicographer and fellow-DSNA member Jane Solomon and illustrated by Louise Lockhart  (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2019).  I love this beautifully crafted word book, as did every grownup I showed it to, and I was eager to know if the children to whom I gave it would find it as engaging.  Because this was not conceived as a research project, no attempt was made to control for such factors as gender, race, or socio-economic status.  The children are white and are growing up in two-parent homes in which their parents are college graduates and actively support the education of their children.

Several weeks after I distributed the books, I arranged to interview three of the youngsters individually.  Dylan, age ten, lives in Carrboro, North Carolina, and is home-schooled. He also attends an outdoor-based educational program on a local nature preserve and has described it in the publication “Field Guide to Forest School” (2019).   Isabel, age  “nine-and-three-quarters” at the time of the interview, also lives in Carrboro and is in the fourth grade.  Parker, almost nine, lives in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and is in the third grade at a Catholic parish school.  None of the three had spent any time with the book since receiving it, but Dylan and Isabel dutifully delved into it in advance of the interview.  Parker’s dictionary, however, lay pristine on his bookshelf among the many books of his pre-computer-game days until he grudgingly took a few minutes away from his screen and controls to speak with me.

All three knew what a dictionary is but had had different experiences using one.  Dylan actually owns a pet dictionary and two children’s dictionaries.  He does not use electronic sources to look up words.  He championed the superiority of a print dictionary: “If you have a flashlight, you can use a dictionary when the power goes out.” Isabel has never dug out the hardback family dictionary that is propping up a piece of furniture in her home, but she has used her father’s old paperback Spanish/English dictionary for her Spanish homework and sometimes borrows his phone to use  Parker claims never to have used a dictionary, but he recalls that his teacher did once—to look up some words for a science lesson.  According to Parker, she told the class that her dictionary was from the olden days before the internet. This generation of language learners appears to have no notion of the dictionary as the book that settles matters of right and wrong pertaining to words.

When asked what they do when they encounter a word they do not know, they all said that they either try to figure it out from the sentence or ask a teacher or a parent.   They do not ask their friends or talk about words with their friends.

As for The Dictionary of Difficult Words, Dylan and Isabel both enjoyed paging through it and reading entries that caught their attention.  Neither one attempted to read it straight through, nor did they read the welcoming pages or end note.  And they simply ignored the grammatical tags like adjective and noun.  Nevertheless, they both figured out how to sound out the pronunciation from the strange spellings within the brackets and that a cloud around a word means that it has a full-page illustration nearby.  

Although Dylan finds most of the words and illustrations interesting, his favorite is kraken ‘a legendary Norwegian sea monster’.  Almost equally cool is the entry and illustration for funambulist ‘a tightrope walker’, along with the extra information that “There are records of funambulists from ancient times.”  When asked to summarize his opinion of the dictionary, Dylan smiled broadly and said, “I like it, particularly quizzing my parents. Especially when they get it wrong.”

Isabel enjoyed finding words she knew already, listing, for example, aloof and bumbershoot and bugbear (which she knew from Harry Potter). The illustrations were the most alluring feature of the dictionary for her: “I especially liked the pictures, because they are funny and cartoony and also because they have lots of cats.”  Among her favorites are the illustrations for cryptozoology and doppelganger, and she had figured out that the Jane pictured for lexicographer was the author of the dictionary.  Isabel’s favorite word is ailurophile ‘someone who loves cats’.  While clearly playing with the –ophile part of ailurophile, she added, “I think I’m a bibliophile and a dogophile too.”

Parker acquiesced to talking about the dictionary only when his older brother, age fourteen, showed an interest in it.  When I asked Parker if he had learned any words from his electronic games, he responded immediately. “Fortnight.  That means fourteen days.  But the game [Fortnite] is spelled N-I-T-E.”  When I asked for other examples, he said with exasperation, “I don’t learn words from games. I learn strategy”  (a word and concept that I probably did not know consciously at age eight).  Nevertheless, he looked through the dictionary with me for about ten minutes. One of the words he liked was zilch, which was entirely unfamiliar to him, and he insisted on rhyming it with itch until his brother and I pointed out the phonetic transcription within the entry.  A few minutes later I concluded our interview by asking if he had learned anything from The Dictionary of Difficult Words.  With irony fully intended, he answered triumphantly, “I learned zilch.”  He added, though, that he will try the word on his friends. ”I’ll say ‘What does zilch mean?’ and they’ll have no clue.”

The only suggestion for improving The Dictionary of Difficult Words comes from Dylan’s mother, who happily participates in the STUMP MOM game as she drives Dylan to and from his various activities.  Many of the words, though fun and worth knowing, rarely appear in speech or in writing.  She thinks it would be useful to mark in some way which of these difficult words a child needs to learn to become a literate adult.

I too encountered many new words in this dictionary. As a result, I can name what I aspire to be in retirement–a deipnosophist ‘someone who is very good at having interesting conversations with others while sitting down for a meal.’ One of my dinner table topics with contemporaries will undoubtedly be their childhood memories of dictionaries and the challenges facing lexicographers who want to hook the current generation of children on words.