D is for Dictionary
My mother always hid the dictionary, for reasons that I never quite understood. Thinking about it now, I guess it had something to do with the fact that it was falling apart and that she didn’t trust me, quite reasonably, to treat it as something fragile and delicate and valuable. My mother had owned it for years: I think she bought it the first year she lived in England, a wide-eyed 19-year-old with no money but lots of dreams.
I preferred then to think that she hid it from me because she didn’t trust me with the knowledge that lay within. This explanation suited me better, because it gave me leave to entertain transgression whenever I rooted round in the wardrobe or shoe cupboard or whatever had taken her fancy as a hiding place this time. Who thought looking up words could be such fun?
As it happens, my fun then was usually found in the trashy sub-Harold Robbins paperbacks that mother had a taste for back then, in the days before she rediscovered the Blood of Christ and ‘fessed up at Confession to neglecting the holy sacrament for 17 years. I guess you could say that there was transgression at play whenever I went after the hidden dictionary. Today we’d say that I was confusing cause and correlation, but back when I was eight or whatever, there was a certain illicit thrill whenever I leafed through the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Good times.
Once, I was reading a book about a young woman in search of her sexuality, which seemed to be the general narrational gist of most of the books my mother liked. I never really got these strange fictional worlds populated by careless, carefree young women leaving their libidos in strange inaccessible places and always needing the help of tall and broad-chested men to bring them down again. Or maybe the men had to bring them up. I forget.
But I digress.
The heroine of this book was a chambermaid or a cleaner or impoverished domestic of some sort. It probably doesn’t matter. Anyway, whilst about her business one day she came across a full-length mirror and was overcome with the sudden urge to recover her lost sensual self in her reflection. So she did what anyone else would do given the circumstances, stripped down to her smalls and began to masturbate in front of the mirror.
I hadn’t come across that word before. I re-read the sentence twice or thrice, searching for context. But there was none to be found. Worse yet, there was no tall and broad-chested male to help us out in our hour of need. Answers had to be found elsewhere.
Between my bedroom and my parents’, Masturbation underwent a curious transformation. By the time I opened the dictionary, I was looking up the meaning of another word.
MENSURATION (Noun): The part of geometry concerned with ascertaining lengths, areas and volumes.
This didn’t seem right. Perhaps, in a certain light and with a squint rather than a full-on gaze at the mirror, ascertaining lengths and volumes might…no. I’d gotten things wrong. Badly wrong. Back to my bedroom, I leafed feverishly through the pages, charged back to my mother’s…
MENSTRUATION (Noun): The process in a woman of discharging blood and other material from the lining of the uterus.
Well, the woman bit was correct, but even dumb me knew that this was still not what I was looking for. It occurred to me that taking the mountain to masturbation might be easier than the other way around; I did the sensible thing and took the dictionary back with me to my bedroom. Which is where my mother found me, a quarter of an hour later, reading soft-core pornography—her soft-core pornography, mind, but perhaps I’m splitting hairs—with her dictionary by my side.
Small boys, when left to their own devices, tend to do the most unspeakable things. It’s the way of the world. For all sorts of reasons, but mainly—I suspect—to head off incipient unspeakability before it became too much of a problem, my parents shipped me off to boarding school at the earliest decent opportunity. The best days of my life, I think nowadays.
As often happens in these microcosms of the real world, the worst (and perhaps also the best, although we rarely had cause to test this) of human behaviour is magnified and distorted. Take toilet paper, for instance. Boys being boys, when they ran out of the stuff, they tended to improvise. I wasn’t terribly bothered when I came across the Bible as a substitute (twice) or the Koran (once). But the day I found a dictionary’s thin eaves screwed up in the toilet basin, my blood ran cold. How could they? Sacrilege. I told a friend about this once, but he got very agitated about my lack of concern for the holy books. But the dictionary is a holy book, I told him. The Bible and Koran are just very good fictions. I’m not sure he has forgiven me yet.
The most fun about a dictionary is the serendipitous discovery of a new word when looking for something else altogether, the shiver of surprise when one discovers words for conditions that one can scarcely define. Preferably dirty conditions. We used to pass words round in boring classes like samizdat.
EPICENE (Adjective): Having characteristics of both sexes or no characteristics of either sex; of indeterminate sex
FROTTAGE (Noun): The practice of touching or rubbing against the clothed body of another person in a crowd as a means of obtaining sexual gratification.
The minds of small boys are like cesspits. What can I say?
Not all of us, mind. My next-bed neighbour during my next-to-last year in school, for example. He was diligent where I was slothful, neat where I was sloppy. He didn’t quite belong amongst us, I liked to think. For all this, we got along together reasonably well. Until the night I caught him reading his dictionary.
At first I thought it was his Bible. He was a Catholic, as I was—literally, I was a Catholic as far as the powers that be in my school were concerned. I’d forged a note from my parents claiming that they had allowed me to become an atheist and oh by the way could I also be excused Sunday chapel? A weekend morning lie-in was worth the risk of all the punishment, spiritual and temporal, in this world and the next, that lay in wait if my deception were to be discovered.
But again, I digress.
No, it’s a dictionary, he replied a little testily, as though he’d been found out in his guilty little secret. This caught me short for a second. I couldn’t quite see him plunging in at random and finding something salacious to snigger over. I read dictionaries too, I confided. He looked startled, surprised and suspicious all at once. Like you started at A and worked your way through, he asked?
Ah. Perhaps we weren’t on the same page after all. The whole point was stumbling across words at random, rolling them about in one’s mouth, allowing unfamiliar sounds to transmute into something sweet. Imagining a sentence, a scenario, where one could wield the word like a weapon. You know, standard schoolboy imaginary stuff. I still think the most useful thing I learnt in school was how to read phonetically.
I don’t have time for that nonsense, he interjected. This is not fun, it’s about preparing myself for the future.
For the future, I snorted. Good luck with that.
Mind you, he’s a successful surgeon these days, whilst I’m…well, I’m not. It might just be that he made the right choices. Never mind.
I was clearing out books the other day. Simple rules: If I bought it more than five years ago and still haven’t read it, then it goes. If I can’t remember when or where or why I bought it, then it goes. If I reviewed it and didn’t like it, then it goes too. Giving books away without good cause is the hardest thing to do. But there is only so much space in the world. In any case, one always needs an excuse for new acquisitions, new impulse purchases, new presents to oneself…
I found my dictionary, my Concise English Dictionary, coated with dust. I haven’t opened it for years. Betwixt my spellchecker and Google—and the small insignificant matter of growing up—I no longer have the need to look up smutty words. I no longer have the need to look up words. My world had contracted around me and I’d scarcely noticed. I placed it on the “maybe” pile, as usual much bigger than the “to go” pile.
I found another dictionary, a miniature Hebrew dictionary. I hated it. I hated it because for years, it reminded me of my incompetence with the language. There are certain prerequisites for a successful relationship with a dictionary. Mastery of the alphabet is one of these, and between the aleph and the ayin, between shin, sin, and samekh, I am perpetually at sea. Or perhaps that should be shea. Eventually, I was rescued by one of these fabulous smartphone gadgets that knows what you want even before you know it yourself. A necessary sacrifice, I tell myself. I can’t really miss words that I don’t know exist, after all.
My son picked it up, turned it round in his hands, wiped the dust clean on my jeans. “Why are you giving this away?” he asked.
Because I’m too lazy to learn my Hebrew alphabet, which makes it as good as useless. “You could read it like a book,” he said. I could, that was true. “Or I could teach you the aleph-bet,” he continued. You could do that too, I replied.
When I was a child, my parents didn’t talk to me about very much. They talked at me, talked around me but they didn’t very often actually talk to me. To be fair, they did try a little when I was a little older, but by then I’d already backed myself into the mono-syllabic shell into which all teenagers retreat. I guess we lacked the language, the words that shape shared experience, give people stuff to actually talk about. In common with most other things, I blame them for this. They shouldn’t have hidden the damned dictionary.
Like most linguistically-challenged parents I know, I use my child as a dictionary, translator and guide through the arcane depths of modern Hebrew. It’s rather nice, having a living breathing dictionary. There are things that I can’t ask him yet, on grounds of propriety and parental responsibility, but we’ll get there yet.
This time, I do not digress.
I did give away the dictionaries, but I can’t give him away (I have tried). So perhaps we’ll have to learn how to talk. And learn to have things to talk about. I hope so.
FATHER (Noun): A man in relation to his child or children; an important male figure in the origin and early history of something.
DICTIONARY (Noun): A book that lists the words of a language in alphabetical order and gives their meaning; a reference book on any subject, the items of which are arranged in alphabetical order.
Akin Ajayi was born in London, grew up in Lagos and has lived in Israel for 6 years. He writes book reviews and feature pieces for anyone kind enough to pay him for the pleasure, and spends the rest of his time editing academic papers and staring out of windows.