QA 33. May 2012. It’s only words, and words are all I have…

It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature. Jorge Luis Borges

The hard drive of my laptop crashed two days before I was to leave on a residential writing retreat. I took it philosophically (of course) and looked forward to five days of writing by hand. But when I realised I’d also be without my online dictionaries, I packed a neglected old companion: a second-hand Collins English Dictionary bought a dozen years ago when I was writing my thesis. Subtitled A Dictionary of the English Language containing over 100,000 References and Numerous Supplements and edited by Alexander H. Irvine, it was first published in 1956. It’s a pleasantly compact hardcover edition complete with faded dust-wrap and a frayed plastic cover. The R10 price is still pencilled on the flyleaf. In the next few days, we fell in love all over again.

 Any dictionary can supply the proper name for some thing. That yellow digging machine droning away in the background: is it a backhoe or a bulldozer? It’s a backhoe. I looked it up. So now you have the right picture in your head – or you can look it up, if you’re not sure. Backhoe? Backhoe. Now we’re on the same page.

This is the mundane function of a dictionary. But in its more occult role, a dictionary is a dowsing rod for the “irrational and magical” roots of language. You have to find the one that sings for you as my Collins does for me. Even its guidewords are sonorous incantations:

Dravidian to dregs, dreich to drip

stood to stork and storm to straggle

lick life, lift light.

The sorcery of written language is the remarkable way it contacts and connects us. I write with you in mind, not knowing who or where or even when you are. Yet right now, in this moment when you read what I am writing right now, we are somehow in touch. Words call us out. They invoke, evoke, provoke. And when the separation between writer and reader and writing disappears, we are enchanted in a strange, shared world where time and space are undone. The dictionary is a writer’s book of spells that bind us in these deep currents. (What, you never noticed the relation between spelling and spells?)

With its archaisms and its etymologies, my dictionary also links me to my own heritage, to ancestors I know in my bones. The English I use echoes and refracts the old languages of northern Europe, ancient Latin and Greek, and the earlier roots these share with Persian and Sanskrit. It carries shards of meaning, traces of the different ways we have come together in the past 5,000 years to speak of the world and understand it, to express ourselves, to question, inform, entertain. Ernest Weekley’s introduction marvels that a mere 26 letters, combined and recombined, have yielded the works of Shakespeare, Newton and Dickens. He names this the “alchemy by which the raw constituents of the alphabet are wrought to gold”.

We easily admit that words can be powerful, without wondering how that power is generated. I fancy that it is these uncanny connections between persons across time and space, that they create a force as strong as chemical bonds. We feel it reverberate in the stories we tell, in the stories that tell us.

With due respect to Mr Borges: the deceptively humble dictionary is more than an “artificial repository”. It is the key to the source.

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