Looking It Up: Keeping the `Search' in `Research'

Article excerpt

WHEN I was writing my first book reports, my mother could usually be relied upon to provide the correct spelling of a difficult word. My father, who was as good a speller as my mother, was much more likely to direct me to the dictionary, in the hope that this would teach me self-reliance, research skills, or at least the principle of alphabetical order. Not knowing how a word is spelled does impair one's ability to locate it in a dictionary, but, as I soon realized, the whole point of "research" was to proceed by trial and error, testing possible spellings until the correct one was found. This was precisely the long-drawn-out process I had hoped to avoid by the more convenient method of asking the handy reference known as Mom.

Then there was the library reference section where my classmates and I congregated after school to compile our "reports" on - who can remember? The chief agricultural exports of Brazil? The history of the cotton gin? There were rows and rows of massive tomes to be hefted from shelves, copied from, and as often as not, uncomprehended. But there were also multivolume encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs - all brimming with information.

In those days, I gravitated toward "Current Biography," where I - a teenaged girl with a budding interest in movie actors - could find little bios and surprisingly large photographs of important research topics like Albert Finney or Robert Redford. Not only movie actors, but any topic other than the one assigned seemed hard to resist. En route to the tedious old "cotton gin," my eye could hardly miss the fully illustrated entry on "costume": the one that starts off with pictures of togas, followed by medieval gowns, on through bonnets, bustles, and shirtwaists.

Nowadays, the temptations of reference books are even stronger. Reading and writing about books for a living, I spend a lot of time looking things up. Silly as it may sound, I feel a sense of gratitude toward my reference books. Turning from a paragraph I'm trying to write in order to check a spelling in the dictionary, to find a synonym in the thesaurus, or to check a fact in some other book, is a welcome break, not unlike a visit with an old friend.

When it comes to dictionaries, I'm usually torn between the august "Oxford English Dictionary" (I have the compact version) and the "American Heritage Dictionary" (3rd edition), with its charming pictures. The OED has splendid etymological lore tracing the history of the words, but the "American Heritage" is useful because it includes all the latest slang and other modern jargon. The OED still bears the stamp of the British Empire, with words like cutcha, an Anglo-Indian term meaning of poor quality (the opposite of pucka). And when one tires of looking up words, it's always fun to turn to those charts, featured in many dictionaries, illustrating the Indo-European family of languages, and marvel over the relationships among Sanskrit, Italic, Celtic, Balto-Slavic, and so forth.

Sometimes, when I'm trying to write, it seems as if my vocabulary has walked out on me. On other occasions, it's not just a question of finding another word for "interesting" because I've already used it twice in two paragraphs, but a question of what word I mean in the first place. …

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