The book lords over my living room. A shelf sags under its weight of ink and wood-pulp. Inside are pages the size of napkins at an Italian restaurant, 2666 of them, printed in three columns of sadistically small type. When splayed open it is as wide as twenty lesser volumes, and it is never closed. It’s a blue whale of a book: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.
Read that last word again. “Unabridged.” Consider the thrilling hubris of that claim: the book actually seeks to contain every piece of one of the most chaotic languages in the world, and then to carefully define each one of those words, with etymology and pronunciation thrown in for kicks. Paging through it offers a rare sense of being immersed in the language, of being able to explore its veins and fault lines, a vertiginous pleasure. The blinking bar of a search engine can feel hopelessly restrictive in comparison.
The dictionary occupies its place in my house like an old family Bible. My own Good Book tends to wind up in less lofty spots, like in the kitchen or next to the bed, but the dictionary always keeps to its imposing perch. I think this is fitting: in its way the dictionary, too, is holy. In its way the dictionary—in whatever edition—is one of our sacred books. The preface of my Merriam-Webster doesn’t make many big claims for itself—it’s admirably unassuming—so I’ll make one for them: the dictionary is a kind of ark for the most sacred possession we have. It is a sturdy vessel for our lexical selves, and will serve us well as the waters rise.
The dictionary is a kind of ark for the most sacred possession we have.
If you followed the thunderously erudite and surprisingly funny tenure of Geoffrey Hill as the Oxford Professor of Poetry, you have an idea of what the dictionary can do for a person willing to meet it toe-to-toe. Hill, who passed away on June 30 of this year, was a British poet of the grey-bearded-prophet variety, often called the “best living writer in prose or poetry.” Until just weeks ago, at 83 years old, Hill was a living, breathing, growling repository of the bulk of English Literature. His recent lectures are a good primer on his aims. In them he makes constant reference to the Oxford English Dictionary—always abbreviated OED, like some magisterial former lover’s initials. Almost every lecture seems to hinge on the misuse of one specific word. Hill narrows in with monkish focus, analyzing the original speaker’s intentions or failures of attention and the literary and political effects thereof. At first the misused word does not seem to be worth all this gnashing of teeth and repeated appeals to dear old OED; but then, all of a sudden, it does. And we see Hill’s passionate devotion to words and language for what it is: a drive to protect a sacred and delicate thing from harm. What Hill and others believe is that our lexical inheritance is not a casual, contingent topic, but a central one. Its health is democracy’s health, against despots’ efforts to subjugate it. Language isn’t a prehistorical formation, like a mountain range, but the result of endless wrestlings, wrestings, and actual bloodshed across history. And the produced result is precious.
The centrality of lexis can be seen in several disciplines. Anthropologists have been hollering for at least a century that language, not tools, is what truly made humans humans, contra the pop-scientific idea that tool use is what separates man from other primates. Over in philosophy, analytic-tradition superstar Charles Taylor just published a book titled The Language Animal—which is a pretty good summary in title alone. Linguistics has done business with evolutionary biology in the work of Noam Chomsky, who proposes that the structure of language is truly innate to the human mind. The two disciplines have even come together to form a promiscuous new field, biolinguistics.
But it is in the murk of theology that words may have the most primacy. In the Hebrew Bible, language has power from the very start. The Book of Genesis does not represent God’s creation of the world, but his uttering it into being. At no point does God fashion the substance of the world with his hands—it’s something more mysterious: “God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” In that moment he did not make light, he spoke it. The same goes for the firmament, the gathering of the waters, and so forth. And really, what other act could have the requisite power? Language’s prepotency has been with us from the beginning.
The power of the word was eventually passed to God’s bumbling final creation. Man was jabbering away before he managed to get on a pair of pants. Fascinatingly, Adam first speaks when God gathers up all of the animals and has him give them names. Genesis 2:19 (KJV) reads: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air; and brought them unto Adam, to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” With that, Adam becomes the first link in an impulse that leads straight down to Noah Webster. The father of us all is also the father of our simple tendency to give every shard of existence its own proper definition.
But things got more complicated after Eden for human language, too. All the business about God’s name YHWH being the one unutterable word, for example. Or the construction of the Tower of Babel, language’s essential tragedy. Then in the New Testament there is the difficult Gospel of John, which starts out: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If you can pierce that one, congratulations: they have been puzzling over it since the 1st Century A.D. Puzzling over it, and sometimes dying over it: At least two early-church heresies (Arianism and Sabellianism) sprang from alternate readings of that one verse.
The bloody English Reformation, Geoffrey Hill’s special terrain, was truly a war over words—and not the words of military treaties, but the specific phrasing of creed and liturgy. This explains why the man spends so much time getting his words just right: he knows what they have cost. And it explains why the work of institutions like the Oxford English Dictionary are of such agonizing importance to him. The dictionary is the historical record of such struggles. Hill writes: “Most of what one wants to know, including much that it hurts to know, about the English language is held within these twenty volumes. To brood over them and in them is to be finally persuaded that sematology is a theological dimension.” Even without sharing Hill’s often vexed Anglicanism, you can still acknowledge the deathly seriousness he attaches to speech. Language is our Creator’s highest gift, and so our misuse of it is especially calamitous. As, therefore, our good use of it can be divine.
So the dictionary contains “much that it hurts to know,” yes. But also much that it thrills to know. Maybe it’s my distance from Canterbury, but my own experience of the dictionary expresses itself more in awe and pleasure than in dismay. There is something about looking through it which is almost novelistic, a lexical saga in which the words’ origins, development, and fate take on a narrative aspect. Furthermore the experience of a physical dictionary is very different from any web-based one, where the search engine calls up your term from its slot in a memory cache, and displays it free of context. On a page the entries have a drift, a flow; there is something in the neighborly way that “coral” leads to “coracle” (a tiny hide-covered boat) which leads to “corm” (an underground root bulb) which is quietly lovely. It’s easy to look up one interesting word and find five. There are other charms: the etched diagrams of ants and horses and colter-ploughs, for instance. Then there is the entry for “color,” which has a big glossy pull-out page with the whole rainbow splayed out on it. It’s pretty, but also somehow poignant: a reminder of the limits of our tongue. It seems that color can’t be adequately described in words. At some point the names won’t work, and all you can say is: Here, look. This is a rainbow.
Language may be sacred, but its individual pieces change, break apart, build on each others’ empty shells.
As I write this my dictionary is open to the entry for “sematology,” helpfully explained as “semantics, the study of meaning in language.” I needed the word for this essay. But as I looked for sematology I came across the word selah, the odd interjection found in the Psalms. I never knew what it meant. It turns out that the editors of the Merriam-Webster don’t know either: its meaning is a historical mystery. Today it is nothing more than a beautiful sound. Selah’s fate is instructive. Language may be sacred, but its individual pieces change, break apart, build on each others’ empty shells. Learning this fact at this moment was somehow perfect— finding selah helped me think about sematology. Words have a strange way of doing that: sometimes they almost seem to possess their own agency, they find their way. Maybe that is what’s meant in Isaiah 55:11: “So shall my word be that goes forth out of my mouth. . . .it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
James Chapin is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida. He is the author of a forthcoming novel about Florida’s history titled Drovers.