A few (too many) words about a dear friend of mine, posted several years ago in Favorite Books & Authors:
Webster’s New International Dictionary
of the English Language
G. & C. Merriam Company (1924)
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G. & C. Merriam Company (1924)
[click to enlarge]
As far as I’m concerned, you can bury me with this book. But before you do, let me hoist it onto my work table and tell you a little about it. First, the title page. It says here that my trusted companion is “based on the international dictionary of 1890 and 1900,” and is “now completely revised in all departments including also a dictionary of geography and biography, being the latest authentic quarto edition of the Merriam Series. W.T. Harris, Ph.D., Ll.D., Editor in Chief; F. Sturges Allen, General Editor. Springfield, Mass., U.S.A. Published by G. & C. Merriam Company. 1924.”
Now, closing the book that we may judge it by its cover, we find by means of a cheap plastic ruler that the book measures roughly nine by twelve inches, and that it is a full five inches thick. The cover itself is a dirty, beat-up gold. The front and back are still attached to the spine, but are just barely hanging on, which is why I usually leave the dictionary open. All edges are frayed, and there are threads about half an inch long sticking out from the seams. If I had to guess the book’s weight — oof! — I’d say it rings in at about fifteen pounds.
There is some other interesting information printed at the back of the book. In fact, I should have looked here before getting out my ruler. On the very last page, it says that my dictionary measures twelve and three-eighths by nine and three-quarters by five inches, and that it weighs fourteen and three-quarters pounds. Page count: 2,700. Number of illustrations: 6,000. Number of words defined: more than 400,000.
Here is a small portion of what is printed on the upper half of the same page:
Why own a dictionary? Many answer, “So as to know the spelling and pronunciation of words.” Yes, but the modern dictionary has gone far beyond this primary stage and has become almost a universal question answerer. Its purpose, to-day, is to give quick, accurate, encyclopedic, up-to-date information of all kinds that shall be of vital interest and use to all people.
An Aid in Your Work. No matter what your occupation, trade, or profession, the New International will tell you how the best authorities define all its terms. A steel expert confesses that its definition of Vanadium steel gives him information long sought in vain. A judge prefers its law definitions to those of his special law dictionaries. An architect, builder, clerk, machinist, merchant, banker, doctor, clergyman, each will find his department treated by a master of that specialty who has gathered his material from the whole field involved. The man who knows, wins success, and here you have exact knowledge at your fingers’ ends.
Wonderful, isn’t it? I’ve had this dictionary for years. Countless times, I’ve used it as an encyclopedia. For instance, do you know what a “Lemoine pivot” is? The term pertains to automobiles and is “a steering pivot in which each of the swiveling axles carrying the fore wheels moves on a vertical standard at either end of the dead axle.” And here, right next to the definition, is a little drawing of a Lemoine pivot, plain as the nose on my face.
The illustrations in this dictionary are superb. On pages 946 and 947, there are excellent drawings of a gray whale, a gray parrot, a graylag (a European wild goose known for its “lagging” or late migrating), a Michigan grayling (related to trout), a great horned owl, a Great Dane, and a red-necked Grebe (closely related to loons).
Near the bottom of each page is a heavy rule, underneath which are given brief definitions of odd-ball words, some long since fallen into disuse — and by “long since” I mean long since 1924. For example, on page 1,387 we find the word “mochy” (long or short “o” is optional), which, taken from the Scottish, means, variously, moist; damp; misty; or muggy. Did you know that “Mittler’s green” is a variety of chrome green? If you’re wondering what “chrome green” is, it’s “any of several green pigments, consisting essentially of chromic oxide or hydroxide or some chromic salt, used by artists and house painters, in printing wall paper, etc.”
Meanwhile, back at the M’s, a “mixer-ess” is a female mixer. “Mizzle” means to take one’s self off; to disappear suddenly; slink away; decamp. And here’s one that describes the website you’re visiting now: “Miscreation. Noun. Act or result of miscreating; a misshapen or deformed thing,” which, of course, makes me a miscreator.
Have you ever heard the term “grapho-spasm”? It means “writer’s cramp.” Speaking of writing, did you know the word “write” originally meant to scratch, to score, to tear, or to rend? Oddly enough, that’s exactly what I do.
Ah, this old dictionary of mine. Careful now. . . . Easy on that binding. . . . Back to the inside cover we go. Someone has written here, in pencil, “$1.50.” This must mean the book sat in a used book shop for a time. For how long, I wonder? And where else has it been? The dictionary was given to me by an Armenian priest, who thought it took up too much space in his office. How it got there, I have no idea.
In flowery script someone else has written, “Norman Williams, IV. From Mother, with love. Christmas 1924. Woodstock, Vermont.”
Are you out there, Mr. Williams? If you are, by some quirk of fate I’m the one who has your dictionary. Believe me, sir, it’s an honor. I can only hope that you and your dictionary weren’t separated under difficult or violent circumstances. If you were, I am truly sorry.
Still, I keep the dictionary. I hold the key to the universe. I get to be the one who looks at the flags of every country in the world, as the world existed in 1924. I have the two glossy pages of colored photographs entitled, “Coins of the World,” which include a picture of the Abyssinian silver Talari and the Swiss bronze two-centime piece. And I get to be the one who draws comfort from these thin, yellowed pages, and from the riddles, rhymes, and meanings they contain.