Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

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Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.

Doxology, by the way, is a “liturgical formula to praise God” and was important in the history of the Tudors – Henry VIII added a doxology to the Lord’s Prayer when he was coming up with the rules for his own church. I am currently reading Meyers’ history of the Tudor family and came to that part in Henry’s story last night. Hence my interest in its meaning. The word is also used in the third season of the TV series The Tudors when Henry VIII added “for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory for ever and ever…” to the prayer. That’s the doxology part.

Now having read the meaning, you’re probably wondering the etymology of the word, as I was. And for that I again turn to the dictionary in my hand (Oxford being a wonderful source of etymological information as well as meaning and usage).

Doxa means glory and appearance in ancient Greek, but what about logy? Like me you were probably thinking is was the same root that appears in biology, zoology and entomology – a suffix meaning study or science of – but no, we are wrong. Yes, it comes from the Greek logos which means word, or sometimes reason. The suffix -logy can thus represent a characteristic of speech or language, as in eulogy.

It is used in a similar manner in the word amphibology, which is not, as you might expect, the study of amphibians, but rather a word with two meanings. The study of amphibians is herpetology, which also encompasses reptiles. The things you learn from a single reference, eh?

Now I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t I just look it up on dictionary.com, or use some phone app? Well to start, we don’t have a mobile device or tablet in our bedroom. That just seems wrong because it could interfere with my reading. (Nor do we have a TV set in the bedroom – TV is passively entertaining but no match for the brain-strengthening activity of reading). But most of all is that opening a dictionary is like browsing in a bookstore: I get to see a lot more than just the single item. It’s an intellectual adventure from which I learn every time.

One of the very negative things online dictionaries and online stores all do is to narrow our focus so that we don’t learn from the periphery. By that I mean, sure I can look up doxology in dictionary.com and see:

noun, plural dox·ol·o·gies.
a hymn or form of words containing an ascription of praise to God.
the Doxology, the metrical formula beginning “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

Factual, but thin. In order to look at the etymology, I have to click to another part of the page not immediately visible, which on the mobile version is hidden below the advertising and given the dwindling attention span these days, people are unlikely to scroll down to see.

In other words, it takes conscious effort to look it up online – more to dig deeper. You have to know you want to read that part and physically take action to do so. Online and especially mobile apps don’t encourage such exploration. But a dictionary does: you cannot help your eyes scanning more than just the brief text of one word, and if you’re at all curious, you look at other words on the page too. Your brain just naturally consumes more from the printed page.

And there’s no way to see any words that are alphabetically close to doxology online. I would never discover doxastic or doxorubicin, both in close proximity on the printed page but as far from the online definition as Alpha Centauri. And while I may never use those words in my writing or conversation outside this blog, I have at the very least expanded my intellectual horizon a minuscule amount by having read them.

It’s similar to the experience of looking up topics in an encyclopedia. Wikipedia fans take note: as voluminous as the content may be, the actual online experience is parsimonious to your intellectual development compared to the act of opening an encyclopedia because you don’t ever see what’s on the periphery of the topic, you never see unrelated material that comes before and after.

Similarly in a bookstore, I can see hundreds of authors and titles when I am browsing. I can see shelves of topics I had not considered when I started looking for a title. I discover new books and new authors every time. A brief hour in a bookstore expands my knowledge and my horizons without even buying anything. Compare that experience to shopping on Amazon where you search for what you already know you want and then look through Amazon’s horrendously mismatched list of “related” items, many of which are there because someone paid to have them up front in your search results.

And using a dictionary, I need to have some basic understanding of the word’s structure and how it is spelled. I have to know where the word appears in the alphabetical order. D after C but before E, do after di but before du, dox after dow and before doy. Every time I look up a word, I have to remember and reinforce those rules. I have to remember that ks and x sound alike, as do y and ie, so maybe I need to look in more than one place with variant spellings. So my brain is both active and renewed every time.

Online with autocorrect and other built-in features, people don’t need to remember them: the computer does much of the heavy lifting. It helps, but it also dumbs us down. Little wonder so much text on social media is barely readable, with mistakes in spelling, capitalization and punctuation (consider a typically hellacious Trump tweet!). If the computer nanny doesn’t correct their posts for them, the writers don’t know how to do it themselves.

No, I’m not being a Luddite and suggesting people never use online services, apps or sites. I use them all the time and refer to them in my blog almost every post. They are a great source of information and convenience and yes they help when I can’t recall if a word ending is spelled ‘dent’ or ‘dant.’ What I’m trying to point out is that reliance on them as the sole source of all information and learning leads to a narrowing of the intellectual arteries.

Learning should be an organic process that branches and spreads, not a linear one. In a linear world we never learn from others, never see others’ points of view, never learn what’s on the periphery of our narrow views. We stop learning to think for ourselves. When we stop learning, as Leo Buscaglia (not Albert Einstein!) once said, we start dying.

Curiosity should always be present in our daily lives. When people are no longer curious, and no longer read the adjacent words in the dictionary or when they stop browsing the shelves in the bookstore (when they stop even going into bookstores or libraries!), they lose something important in themselves. They lose the ability to see the magic in the world, they lose their ability to be explorers, to see beyond themselves. Our communities erode into a collection of individuals who cannot understand what others think, feel, believe or see. 

And you can see that happening all around you right now, with the rise of the angry, alt-right isolationists, xenophobes, misogynists and nationalists. They cannot see what’s beyond their own limitations because they’ve lost the curiosity to explore the periphery, to learn what’s outside their own skins.

Not that opening a dictionary and reading at random is going to fix that, but at least reading what’s outside our immediate focus can help those of us who still have our curiosity retain a more fulsome view of the world. It will help keep your brain from ossifying, too.

Like I always tell you: read. Then read some more. 

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