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Kids skip dictionaries
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times, April 10, 2004
Kids skip dictionaries and 'Google' it
When I became a parent, I didn't realize my duties would include being a
walking, talking reference book. Here is a sampling of the queries I fielded
1. Is California a continent?
2. If Juliet is the sun, would it blind Romeo to look at her without
3. Did you ever go to a prom, and if so, did you ask the boy or did he ask
you? And why do they call it a prom?
That multipart prom question did me in. I remembered streamers in the gym
and even a corsage. But when it came to the etymology of the word prom, I
So I fell back on one of parenthood's most time-honored strategies, the
"Look it up," I told my 6-year-old.
"Where?" she asked.
"On the Internet," said my 15-year-old, who was on the couch sending instant messages to my 13-year-old, who was sitting next to her. "That's where you look up everything."
Suddenly I felt sad. The Internet is not where you look up everything.
Dictionaries and thesauri and encyclopedias and books on modern usage are
where you look up everything. How are you going to stumble upon an
illustration of a prickly pear cactus or learn that it has yellow flowers,
except by thumbing through a dictionary in search of "prom"?
I have raised three daughters who are reference-book-impaired. They look up
everything online and as a result have a tenuous grasp of the finer points
of alphabetical order. They are far too easy to beat at Scrabble, having
never tripped over useful two-letter words like "ai" while en route to
looking up something else.
I told my husband that we had failed as parents.
"Three words," he said. "Oxford English Dictionary. All 20 volumes."
That was six words. Still, he grew up in a household with a set of the OED,
and as a result was now a whiz on alphabetical order.
What better way to inspire a love of looking things up than by introducing
my children to the world's leading authority on words? This was a reference
work whose first edition took 70 years to complete, and whose 291,500
entries, 2,436,600 quotations (33,300 for Shakespeare alone!) and 219,800
etymologies could save me on a wide variety of pesky queries.
But my local bookstore didn't carry the 20-volume current edition. Was it
because of a lack of shelf space (the OED is 21,730 pages)? Or its weight
(137.7 pounds, or 62.5 kilograms)? Or its price ($895)?
Undeterred, I went online to the dictionary's official site, oed.com. There
I learned about many versions of the dictionary, including a shorter $150
edition with more than 500,000 definitions and a CD-ROM version (which I
rejected on grounds that it would not teach alphabetical order).
There was the compact version of the complete dictionary (with type that
required a magnifying glass to read), the "Additions" (three volumes of
updates) and even an online version (subscriptions cost $295 a year). I
phoned Don Myers, a U.S. spokesman for the Oxford University Press, for
guidance. "Is there a reason to buy the full 20-volume set over other
versions?" I asked. "To be honest, I often recommend either the CD-ROM
version or the online version," he said. "It's faster to look up things,
it's several hundred dollars cheaper and it's not a behemoth."
To prove his point, Myers gave me a temporary reviewer's account to sample
the online version. I had to admit it was a lot of fun to learn, within
seconds, not only that "prom" started life as an abbreviation for the
British "promenade," but also that as early as 1894 the word appeared as a
description for a school dance, as in, "I have been invited over to the
Smith Junior Prom."
I started to waver. After all, where would I store 20 volumes? I turned to a
"You don't want to get the OED," was the first thing that Geoffrey Nunberg
said to me. Nunberg, a Stanford University linguist who heads the American
Heritage Dictionary's usage panel, had strong opinions. He rattled off a
list of substitutes to investigate: Merriam-Webster (m-w.com), Random House (www.randomhouse.com), Webster's New World (wiley.com) and American Heritage (bartleby.com).
"Each has its virtues, but it's like buying a midsize station wagon,"
Nunberg said. "In the end, which model you like will be a personal
So what did I do? I looked up "indecision" at oed.com and learned, "The term
indecision, in a man's character, implies an idea very nicely different from
that of irresolution; yet it has a tendency to produce it."
I have forgotten who said that. But the children can Google it for me later.