I can’t remember how old I was when I first learned the words denotation (the definition of a word) and connotation (the suggestion of a word). But I do remember feeling a little betrayed by the idea that there was a whole layer of language that couldn’t quite be conveyed through a dictionary. Like most young people, I enjoyed learning but thought of it as something I would eventually be done with. At some age, I assumed, I would need to know everything. Understanding the nuances of language seemed like an obstacle to that goal.
It wasn’t until after I graduated from college, and subsequently realized that there’s no such thing as all-encompassing knowledge, that I was able to read for pleasure. A sense of curiosity, rather than desperate completism, steered me. I started to see dictionaries, inexact as they are, as field guides to the life of language. Looking up words encountered in the wild felt less like a failing than like an admission that there are lots of things I don’t know and an opportunity to discover just how many.
I prize my 1954 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, which I picked up on the street near my apartment in Brooklyn a few years ago. Its 3,000 pages (India paper, with a marbled fore edge) are punctuated by a thumb index. I keep it open, solitary on a tabletop, the way dictionaries are usually found in libraries. I often consult it during evening games of Scrabble or midday magazine-reading. I mostly read novels at night, in bed, so when I come across unfamiliar words, I dog-ear the bottom of the page, then look words up in spurts. When I start encountering these words, newly resplendent to my pattern-seeking mind, in articles, podcasts, other books and even the occasional conversation, the linguistic universe seems to shrink to the size of a small town. Dictionaries heighten my senses, almost like certain mind-altering substances: They direct my attention outward, into a conversation with language. They make me wonder what other things I’m blind to because I haven’t taught myself to notice them yet. Recently spotted specimens include orrery, “a mechanical model, usually clockwork, devised to represent the motions of the earth and moon (and sometimes also the planets) around the sun.” The Oxford English Dictionary also tells me that the word comes from the fourth Earl of Orrery, for whom a copy of the first machine was made, around 1700. Useful? Obviously not. Satisfying? Deeply.
With dictionaries, unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why leave them up to guesswork?
Wikipedia and Google answer questions with more questions, opening up pages of information you never asked for. But a dictionary builds on common knowledge, using simple words to explain more complex ones. Using one feels like prying open an oyster rather than falling down a rabbit hole. Unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why leave them up to guesswork? Why not consult a dictionary and feel the instant gratification of pairing context with a definition? Dictionaries reward you for paying attention, both to the things you consume and to your own curiosity. They are a portal into the kind of irrational, childish urge to just know things that I had before learning became a duty instead of a game. I’m most amused by words that absolutely do not mean what I thought they meant. Like cygnet. Which has nothing to do with rings or stationery. (It’s a young swan.)
Sign up for The New York Times Magazine Newsletter The best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week, including exclusive feature stories, photography, columns and more.
There are, of course, many different kinds of dictionaries. The way they’ve proliferated over time is a reminder of just how futile it is to approach language as something that can be fully understood and contained. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, defined a paltry 40,000 words. The original O.E.D., proposed by the Philological Society of London in 1857 and completed more than 70 years later, contained over 400,000 entries. The Merriam-Webster universe is a direct descendant of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. Compiled by Webster alone over the course of more than 20 years, it contained 70,000 words, nearly a fifth of which had never been defined before. Webster, who corresponded with founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, saw lexicography as an act of patriotism. He believed that establishing American standards of spelling and definition was necessary to solidify the young nation’s cultural identity as separate from that of England.
Perhaps because of Webster’s enthusiasm for rules, dictionaries have long had an unfair reputation as arbiters of language, as tools used to limit rather expand your range of expression. But dictionaries don’t create language — people do. Take dilettante: The superficial connotation of the word is a modern invention. Noah Webster’s aforementioned American Dictionary defines it as “one who delights in promoting science or the fine arts.” The O.E.D. cites its connection to the Latin verb delectare, meaning “to delight or please.” To be a dilettante once meant that love and curiosity drove your interest in a given discipline. For me, dictionaries are a portal into that kind of uncalculated knowledge-seeking. They remind me that, when it comes to learning, indulging your curiosity is just as important as paying attention. After all, isn’t curiosity really just another form of attention? Following your curiosity instead of swatting it away is one of the best ways I know to feel connected to more than what’s right in front of you.
Rachel del Valle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ and Real Life Magazine.
Special offer. Subscribe for