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Of Words and Meanings

Kenan’s was not a bookstore.  It was an office supply store, the place where the lawyers in town got their yellow legal pads and had their business cards printed, the place where the accountants got their rolls of adding machine tapes and long green spreadsheets, the place where everybody who had an office got carbon paper and ballpoint pens and staples.

Kenan’s was not a bookstore, but it had a little room off to the side where students could find paperback copies of the books assigned to them by the doyennes of Statesboro High School, Fronita Roach and Dorothy Brannen.  One could also find those books’ Cliff Notes, the purchase of which, I imagine, was accomplished with the same furtiveness and stealth utilized, in those early years of the 1970s, to purchase what the cool kids called weed and what the rest of us called, in careful whispers, marijuana.

The first time I went into Kenan’s was to purchase a dictionary, a 4" by 7" paperback with a cover price of 75 cents, at the instruction of my ninth grade English teacher.  Marcia Lanier was young and enthusiastic and funny and, ever determined to ingratiate myself to my teachers, it never occurred to me, as it had to some of my classmates, to ignore her instructions and depend upon the dictionary we had at home.

I wrote my name on the title page and probably –  though I have no specific recollection of the act, only of who I was and still am – read the foreword, the “guide to the use of the dictionary,” and the key to pronunciation.  I took it to school, carried it around in the stack of textbooks on my hip, and then did it again every day for the next nine months.  

I still have that dictionary, the one I bought at Kenan’s.  The glue on its spine dried out long ago and entire sections (from “dangerous” to “projectile,” for example) lie loose between the covers.  Its pages are the color of weak tea and the font is so small that I have to squint to read most of the definitions.  Stuck between two of the pages is an index card on which Miss Brannen wrote, “Jonathan Swift,” the author assigned to me as the subject of one of many required book reports, and on which I wrote in handwriting that no longer looks like mine, a brief biography of Swift, including, “received payment for only 1 work: 'Gullliver’s Travels'.”

I no longer need my copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.  I can, with a few keystrokes on my laptop, call up not only the definition of any word in the American language, but its synonyms and antonyms.  I can hear someone pronounce it and I can find all the famous quotes in which it was used.  

I no longer need my ragged, outdated dictionary, but it remains within my reach, in a basket on a table beside my reading chair.  I don’t remember the last time I used it to look up a definition, but just today I reached for it, held it in my hands, fluttered the pages with my thumb, and remembered for just a moment the girl who handed Mr. Kenan a single dollar bill in exchange for all the words in the world.

I worry sometimes, when the conversation veers toward the banning of books or the inevitability of artificial intelligence becoming the coin of the realm of writing, that we have forgotten, through neglect or intent, the sacred nature of words.  That we have lost our understanding of the power of words to create and connect.  That with our submission to the perversion of language (including and, perhaps, especially profanity), we have lost the ability to articulate the deepest human emotions and the most generative ideas.

It might do us well to return to the dictionary, one sure thing in the stack of uncertainties we carry on our hips, a reminder of the weight of our words.

Copyright 2024

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