I have my parents to blame/thank for this (sorry to bring you into this, Mom & Dad). As any young child might, I would ask my folks what a word meant or what a thing was. Inevitably, they would direct me to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (kept conveniently on a bottom shelf where we small children could not claim the excuse of a height disadvantage and still experience mind-numbing intimidation upon facing the “abridged” two volume set). My parents are by no stretch of the imagination lazy people. Quite the contrary considering the complaining they endured from me. They taught me a degree of self-reliance in that small, repeated gesture, which I didn’t appreciate until much, much later. For clarification, they were also always willing to discuss the word or idea with me afterward. However, they also taught me, intentionally or not, about the beautiful virtue of accidental knowledge.
Google is modern marvel. My browser has a bookmark on thesaurus.com. The Chicago Manual of Style’s online service is totally worth the cost. But nothing quite compares with the glory, the wonder, the comfort of a good old fashioned desk reference.
The case for keeping a clunky print copy of a dictionary, thesaurus, stylebook, and whatever other reference is relevant for one’s area of writing goes far beyond power outages, flaky Wi-Fi, and freedom from subscription fees. Downsides exist (not the least of which being the debate with oneself to update an edition time and again or, worse, dropping any of them on one’s foot), but the benefit of owning a heavily bound book or two is longer lasting than any search engine could possibly provide.
When I look up nephrotomy (noun Surgical incision into the kidney.) in my dictionary, my eyes accidentally catch the next entry, too:
neplusultra noun 1. The highest point, as of excellence or achievement; the ultimate. 2. The most profound degree, as of a condition or quality.¹
When I look up glowing in my old thesaurus, I do indeed find synonyms that range from blooming and creamy to dithyrambic and torrid. However, my gaze skips to the next entry:
1. To conceal or make light of a fault or offense. Also used with over : explain away, extenuate, gloss over, palliate, sleep over, whitewash. See SHOW. 2. To give a deceptively attractive appearance to. Also used with over : color, gild, gloss (over), sugarcoat, varnish, veneer, whitewash. Idioms: paper over, put a good face on. See TRUE.²
Or when I consult my print copy of The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) how to properly footnote a dictionary/thesaurus entry (see below)³, I also wander over to the opposite page on citing blog entries, making it possible to write the following should I ever find the need:
Kate Homan, “Accidental Knowledge” Long Story Short (blog), May 27, 2015, https://hownovelediting.com/2015/05/26/accidental-knowledge/.
Accidental knowledge is possible via search engines, but it’s also far more likely to be related to that nugget of information for which one is already searching. Valuable, but somewhat lacking that serendipitous rush of new found truth. I can’t think of a time that I’ve used neplusultra or gloze in a sentence, but it’s safe to bet that I’ll be thinking about them for a good long while now. Over many years of schooling, I’ve certainly had to cite references before, but I definitely don’t manage to hold even a fraction of the CMOS in my head. Each time I open one of these books, I find more than what was required.
To boot, I have never, not once gotten sentimental over a website or an online subscription. My thesaurus has a cheap nameplate glued in by some unknown high school administrator stating that 17-year-old me received it “in recognition of academic excellence.” I remember lugging my shiny dictionary back to my first dorm room feeling like the dorky freshman I was. And, well, in case you missed the social media post last week, my long anticipated CMOS 16th edition came along with a new photographic gem of a memory.
I can, should, and do keep looking up the latest editions, new additions, rules, and opinions, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let go of my toe-crushing hardbacks. As crazy as it sounds to some folks, I have a personal connection to these ridiculously hefty books. Because of that sentimentality, I’m more likely to use them, and my writing and editing can only benefit from that. Accidents and all.
1. The American Heritage College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.vv. “nephrotomy,” “neplusultra.”
2. Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, 3rd ed., s.vv. “glowing,” “gloze.”
3. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2010), 14.247.