Reading Webster for pleasure of it

The Education Beat

Changes: Modern school dictionaries are going beyond merely defining words in offering young audiences illustrations and a touch of fun.

January 28, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

EVERY CLASSROOM at Catonsville Elementary School has at least one set of these books. They're the most abundant in American schools and perhaps the most important to the teaching of reading.

Yet, most of us give little thought to that old workhorse, the dictionary. That's because most adults use it primarily to look up words so they won't commit embarrassing errors in their writing (such as misspelling "embarrassing"). Donald Hofler, a professor emeritus at Loyola College, is the only person I know who settles down with a good dictionary for the pleasure of it.

Hofler isn't crazy. Dictionaries tell us a good deal about ourselves and our culture. They also tell us how children learn to speak, read and write. They're changing in fascinating ways, especially children's dictionaries. They're no longer dull lists of words with their meaning and proper pronunciation. They're reaching out to younger audiences more than ever before.

Modern school dictionaries go well beyond defining. They're ever more beautifully illustrated. They combine the function of the classic dictionary with that of its first cousin, the thesaurus. They present word games and playful word histories. They have a sense of humor.

One, introduced two years ago as the "Merriam-Webster and Garfield Dictionary," combines the text of a dictionary with a collection of Jim Davis' Garfield cartoon strips. The first dictionary with an attitude also presents some "daffy definitions." Example: "Alarm clock: A device for waking people who don't have kids or pets."

Putting together a children's dictionary is not easy, says Linda P. Wood, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster who's working on a dictionary for beginning readers. It's difficult, she says, to find the right balance between simple words and more complex words, like "photosynthesis," that every youngster should know.

"If a dictionary is nothing but simple words," says Wood from her office in Springfield, Mass., "it's useless for looking words up."

Then there are rules of the road. Merriam-Webster's four children's dictionaries (excluding Garfield, which is for all ages) never define a word with a word that's not defined elsewhere in the book. If you think about it, the rule makes sense; it lends integrity.

Another rule prohibits circular definition: Paired synonyms can't define each other. "Just for example," says Wood, "let's say we define `macabre' as `ghastly.' If we then go to `ghastly,' we can't define it as `macabre.'"

Wood says dictionary editors spend a lot of time worrying about how long a line of print children at various ages are capable of looking at and reading. Illustrations are crucial. They often show how things work.

Dictionaries for very young children are mostly colorful drawings and photographs, basically an expanded alphabet. Those directed at older children have much more text and more elaborate definitions.

Maryland language arts standards call for instruction in the use of the dictionary. For beginning readers, dictionaries help children learn the "alphabetic principle," the bedrock of reading. And the state encourages use of dictionaries in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Children's language isn't changing as rapidly as adult language, say Merriam-Webster editors, so fewer additions and subtractions are made to juvenile dictionaries.

Not so the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which is updated yearly and overhauled roughly every decade. "More new words are coming in, and they're coming in at a faster rate," says John M. Morse, the Merriam-Webster president.

A primary reason is the Internet, "which disseminates words throughout our culture very quickly in written form." ("Internet" wasn't defined in Merriam-Webster until 1996.)

About 100 words have been added to the 2001 edition, says Morse. A sampling:

Digerati - "persons well versed in computer use and technology."

Gated community - "a residential area protected by a private security force, enclosed by physical barriers, and entered through a controlled gate."

Eye candy - "something superficially attractive to look at."

24-7 - "for 24 hours seven days a week."

Three years ago, Morse's company put the Collegiate online free ( This allows a view into social trends and the public's fascination with particular words, as people look them up online at an average rate of six per second.

Morse says the 10 most frequently looked-up words in 2000 were (in ascending order from 10th): oxymoron, principle/principal, ubiquitous, serendipity, genome, equinox, embarrassing, affect/effect, paradigm and ... .

No. 1? (Hint: Only a few lexicographers had heard of it until the night of Nov. 7.)


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