A Tribute to American Heritage: Guest-post by Anne Coray

Welcome and thank you to September featured author (and dictionary lover) Anne Coray.
Even though I live off-the-grid and no longer have to schedule my life around the academic calendar, September still reminds me of the start of a new school year. As the leaves begin to yellow and an early morning crispness spikes the air, I think of all the students out there, many of them college freshmen cracking open unfamiliar texts with both anticipation and apprehension. Will I like the contents? Is the writing dull or engaging? What references will I use when I do my own writing—whether term papers or something more in the creative vein?
For all you would-be writers out there, a good dictionary is like a good friend—indispensable, loyal, but willing to correct you when you’ve erred.
My first year of college I was given a 1975 edition of American Heritage, which has traveled with me ever since. The spine is duct-taped, the first pages are crinkled, the alphabet tabs have fallen off and been replaced with handwritten letters in red ink, and several pages in the Z’s have completely separated from the spine. But I still use and love this dictionary, and not just for sentimental reasons.
A few years ago my husband, Steve, and I decided to upgrade, so we acquired a Merriam-Webster’s tenth edition. Among publishers, Webster’s is the industry favorite, a golden calf the professionals look to for the last word on spelling and definitions. Granted, my American Heritage is outdated, and for spelling I too usually defer to Webster’s—particularly when looking for compound words, which over time usually begin as two words, then graduate to a hyphenated word, and finally become compound. But my use of Webster’s doesn’t extend much beyond mere spelling. In almost every other area, American Heritage is my preferred dictionary. Not only do I find its definitions better, it has usage and etymological entries that Webster’s doesn’t.
Some examples would better illustrate my point.
A while back, Steve and I were discussing the terms Celsius and Centigrade. Suddenly we became confused. What’s the difference? We looked up the definitions in Webster’s. Here’s what we found:

Celsius: “relating to, conforming to, or having the international thermometric scale on which the interval between the triple point of water and the boiling point of water is divided into 99.99 degrees with 0.001° representing the triple point and 100° the boiling point; compare CENTIGRADE.”

Centigrade: “relating to, conforming to, or having a thermometric scale on which the interval between the freezing point of water and the boiling point of water is divided into 100 degrees with 0° representing the freezing point and 100° the boiling point.”
Eyes glazing over and still uncertain about the distinction, we turned to A. H.:

Celsius: “Of or pertaining to a temperature scale that registers the freezing point of water as 0° C and the boiling point as 100° C under normal atmospheric pressure. Also called ‘centigrade’.”
Now it was clear: the two are interchangeable, maybe in all but a very technical context.
Usage, as I mentioned, is another bonus of A.H. Here’s the usage note under “where”:

“Where is used with from to indicate motion from a place: Where did they come from? A preposition is not needed to indicate direction or motion to a place in a corresponding construction such as Where did they go? (go to is redundant); nor is a preposition used to indicate location or position of rest in Where are they? (not Where are they at?)”
And I like that A.H. offers subtle synonym distinctions. Here’s what we learn about “awkward”:

awkward: “Synonyms: awkward, clumsy, maladroit, inept, gauche, bungling, ungainly, unwieldy. These adjectives refer to lack of grace or skill in movement, manner or performance. Awkward and clumsy, the least specific, are often interchangeable. Clumsy emphasizes lack of dexterity in physical movement. Awkward applies both to physical movement and to embarrassing conditions and situations. Maladroit implies lack of tact or skill in relationships with other persons. Inept applies to inappropriate actions and speech. Gauche (French for “left”) usually suggests boorishness. Bungling implies gross incompetence in performance. Ungainly suggests a visible lack of grace in form or movement. Unwieldy describes objects whose size or shape make them difficult to handle.”
Want an etymology? A.H. is your reference.
One of my poems, “Etymological Travelogue,” from my collection Bone Strings, was inspired by reading the etymology of the word “hob” (as in a hobgoblin): “from Hobbe, pet form of Robert or Robin.” The word’s other definition, a shelf, is of unknown origin.
And now it’s time for me to close the lexicon and get back to the mundane task of flushing out our gray water system to the bath house. Eighteen years’ worth of sludge is quite a chore. In order to cut a new hole in the drum I had to assume a very awkward position. Or was it clumsy or ungainly? And the stench—I could say it smells disgusting, but A.H informs me that would merely specify an odor. I’m opting for “it smells disgustingly,” which indicates a “degree of foul smell.” Believe me, I’d rather be perusing the dictionary.
Anne Coray’s latest collection of poetry is A Measure’s Hush, published by Boreal Books. She lives on Lake Clark and her website is www.annecorayalaska.com.

1 thought on “A Tribute to American Heritage: Guest-post by Anne Coray”

  1. I do love a good dictionary!
    Here's what Steven Wright,one of my favorite comedians, had to say about them:

    As a kid, I liked to read the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.

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