Looking It Up


Ruminations on the etymologies of words, balance, and creative time for pondering.

My French Dictionaries were dusty. But when I recently pulled them from their shelf chez moi in anticipation of a pending continental sojourn, I felt their power.

As a French major at Davidson, I spent my junior year abroad in Montpellier, where I purchased a purely french Petit Robert, having outgrown much need, I thought, for my French-English Larousse.

As I recently thumbed through both tomes, I recalled memories of youthful delight at linguistic discovery, of seeking new and different ways to say things in a foreign land in a foreign language. And even farther back toc hildhood, I remembered the  budding sense of self-determination I would feel at parental exhortations to “look it up,” in a family dictionary that weighed as much as I did.

I’ve always loved dictionaries. I still have the American Heritage Dictionary of English that I bought freshman year in the basement bookstore of the old union. That one is inscribed in green felt-tip: “To me, because I needed a dictionary. Much love, John.” Cute.

I especially love a dictionary with complete etymologies. Words, in any language, need their roots to grow true in a mind. I know this is so for I have looked it up: the word “etymology” itself grows from Greek words for “truth” and “word.”

Make no mistake: I love the convenience of my computer desktop dictionary/thesaurus tool. I use it hourly, sometimes without even knowing it. But for full-sail exploration of uncharted linguistic territory, no online tool I’ve encountered yet provides  the same exquisite balance of serendipity and control, of freedom and pacing, as a real, good dictionary, with pages that rustle.

Creating time and space for pondering is important, arguably more now than ever. Words on paper are particular that way. Consider: as you read this magazine and rustle its pages, what words on the page strike you? Why? and further, how did those words come to mean what they mean? Look it up….

I’ve been mulling the possibility of an essay article about the “etymologies of Davidson.” I’d welcome your thoughts on words to look up. E-mail josyme@davidson.edu or call me at 704-894-2523.

In any case, happy reading!

—John Syme


About Author

Comments are closed.