The Lost Art of Reading Dictionaries

I admit I used to read dictionaries. Not for fun, but as a method of procrastination. You know in school, how they used to make you look up meanings of words and write them down on your worksheet? Well, the words that weren’t on the worksheet were far more interesting than the words that were. I discovered all sorts of fantastic definitions this way.

The one that sticks out the most in my mind now is the word “mutton-chops.” I believe this is the very first place I ever heard of anyone wearing their beard in a such a way. The dictionary entry was illustrated with a neat little picture too, so I got to stare in fascination at something like this:

T. H. Huxley, from Wikimedia Commons


I still think it is not the most flattering look for a guy.

That got me thinking, why don’t I ever do this now? Because I almost never crack open a dictionary anymore. If I don’t know how to spell something, or if I don’t know what a word means, I type it into an online dictionary and the right word usually comes up right away. (I know, you thought I was one of those young people who rely exclusively on spell-checker and don’t know how to spell, didn’t you?) It is far quicker to look words up online. But until now I never realized this means I bypass every other interesting word that starts with the same letter as the one I’m looking up.

The growth of the internet has changed a lot of things like this for me – I use instead of dictionaries, instead of thesauruses, Google Translate instead of English/Spanish dictionaries (or English/French or English/Portuguese dictionaries), and lastly, I use Wikipedia instead of encyclopedias. Remember Microsoft Encarta? Yeah, we used that in school, but now it’s gone the way of the dodo bird.

This has made a lot of things easier, but sadly some things have been lost. I will miss learning about mutton-chops and other assorted strangeness. And what will we do with the stereotype of the nerd who reads dictionaries in his spare time for fun? Does anyone read dictionaries anymore?


What do you think – is dictionary reading a lost art? Has anything about the way you look up words changed?


Filed under Bookish Thoughts

6 responses to “The Lost Art of Reading Dictionaries

  1. Dillon

    Hiya Harmamae!

    First of all, I have to mention that mutton-chops always remind me of George C. Scott in his role as Ebenezer Scrooge.

    But, as to the art of dictionary reading, I do indeed think it is dying out. I use the dictionary on my Dashboard (I use a Mac) for almost everything. I don’t even own a physical dictionary of the English language anymore. BUT, I still usually use a paper dictionary when I’m working in French, and I find myself doing the same thing. I’ll look up a word, find a more interesting word on the same page, and so on. And since it’s a bilingual dictionary, the rabbit trails can get pretty long as you flip between the Eng-Fre side and the Fre-Eng side. Sadly, I rarely remember the words I run across in either language. I don’t remember if you speak French, but here’s a fun French term for you that I ran into just yesterday: “Les Chamailleries” (pronounced a bit like “lay shaw-my-yer-ee”). It means “bickering,” as in, “I can’t stand all the bickering in this family!”



    • Cool! Thanks for the French (I have another reader from France who’s teaching me French things too!) I don’t exactly “speak” French, but I did take it in school so I can read it somewhat. I guess language dictionaries can be very useful for learning new words.


  2. Alexia

    It’s funny, I used to always have my nose in a dictionary, and like you said looking up a word made me discover other words, but now, with Internet, it’s true I don’t use dictionaries anymore. The only one I’m still using is the Bescherelle, which is less a dictionary than a grammar reference book in three volumes, very popular and very useful. I always think I should buy this year’s dictionary but I never do… It’s sad when you think about it.


  3. Dillon

    You know, it just occurred to me that what I used to do with dictionaries — wander around and learn a bunch of new words — is what I now do on Wikipedia. Oh how often I look up one article, then just start clicking on links to other pages and spending way too much time reading other articles.


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