Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion

Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion

by Ilan Stavans

The whole of The Catcher in the Rye is in the Oxford English Dictionary, waiting to be unscrambled, and so are all the novels of our past, present, and immediate future

Function: noun
: a person filled with enthusiasm : as a: one who is ardently attached to a cause,


The whole of The Catcher in the Rye is in the Oxford English Dictionary, waiting to be unscrambled, and so are all the novels of our past, present, and immediate future

Function: noun
: a person filled with enthusiasm : as a: one who is ardently attached to a cause, object, or pursuit b: one who tends to become ardently absorbed in an interest

A dictionary, despite its heroic effort to pin down language, is destined for failure the moment a single word is printed; language, with its eternal mutations, is forever uncontainable. In Dictionary Days, award-winning essayist Ilan Stavans explores our very human need to "seize upon the meaning of a word." Owner of hundreds of dictionaries, he follows a fascinating, zigzagging history of lexicography across many languages, including English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Cyrillic. Throughout his journey, Stavans spots strange meaning inconsistencies, uncovers unusual origins, and shares extraordinary and often hilarious anecdotes.

With a dazzling knowledge of dictionaries through the ages, matched by a lively wit, Stavans reaches far beyond the margin of the page and pays a worthy tribute to a discipline that is at once inspiring and maddening. "For dictionaries are oracles: nothing is outside them—except the impossible."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Springing from his free-form talk at a Michigan Quarterly Review panel discussion, this discursive and charming collection of personal essays by prolific Amherst professor Stavans (Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language) explores his lifelong obsession with dictionaries, concordances and lexicons. Just a few examples from his bulging reference shelves include Dr. Johnson's seminal dictionary, the Byzantine Lexeis, the medieval Kitab al-'Ain and Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas. Stavans's ideal of the dictionary represents not only raw material for polyglot scholars like himself. It's also the code to forthcoming masterpieces such as Don Quixote, Moby-Dick and all of Shakespeare. Stavans cites these and more with offhand erudition. Drawing on his Mexican-American and Jewish backgrounds, he shares his experiences with English, Spanish and Yiddish and ventures into encounters with Arabic, Chinese and Sumerian. He muses on the meanings of particular words (like love and death) in many languages and on the ambiguous status of colloquial speech, such as Spanglish and four-letter words. At his most playful, Stavans reveals his instructional debt to Fictionary, his deep enjoyment of cheesy Mexican musicals and his dreams of fantastical blank books that contain only transporting aromas. Unlike most dictionaries, Stavans's eclectic volume feels too brief, but it shares their enlightening and browsable qualities for anyone who loves the serendipities of language. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
To say that Stavans (Latin American & Latino culture, Amherst Coll.; Spanglish) loves words is an understatement: he is obsessed with them. Early chapters in this charming book describe his love of The Oxford English Dictionary and his need to collect, read, and quote from dictionaries, lexicons, and glossaries of all types. Stavans does more than collect-he explores the development of words and language, and as a non-native English speaker (he's of Jewish and Mexican descent), his insight into the subtleties and inconsistencies of English are especially apt. One chapter tells of his hosting a surprise houseguest-Samuel Johnson, the originator of the OED. Johnson observes, argues, listens, and acts just as one would expect before departing in a puff of smoke after commenting on a beautiful Katsura tree ("You should consider it good luck to live under a canopy of leaves"). Much like a good dictionary, this modest volume can be browsed or read straight through. Recommended for all collections.-Jan Brue Enright, Augustana Coll. Lib., Sioux Falls, SD Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Charming, loose-fitting essays about the sublime and silly pleasures of reading the dictionary. Mexican-American Stavans (On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, 2002, etc.) is an enormously personable writer, deeply read without letting on that he's also an academic (Latino American and Latino Culture/Amherst). His essays probe with a light touch his quarry as a "dictionary hunter," first prompted by his father's gift of Appleton's New English-Spanish and Spanish-English Dictionary when Stavans first moved to New York from Mexico in 1985. With it, he read Moby-Dick. He believes a dictionary's function is to "build character," and indeed his essay "Pride and Prejudice" mentions many of the lexicographers over the ages who have attempted to impart this very quality to their readers: Aristophanes of Byzantium and his first Lexeis; John Baret's work of 1573; Samuel Johnson; the Encyclopeadists; Noah Webster; and the editors of the towering Oxford English Dictionary, just to name a few. Stavans includes some fine scholarship in Arabic and Hispanic dictionaries, as well. In "The Invention of Love," he delineates how definitions of love (in different language dictionaries) help define a culture, while "The Zebra and the Swear Word" explores hilariously erroneous information given by dictionaries, such as the definition for day offered by the modern Real Academia Espanola as "the time the Sun takes to apparently circle the Earth." And where, he wonders, are the swear words in the OED-words everybody uses but lexicographers are still embarrassed by? (There's a nice catalogue of them.) "In the Land of Lost Words," Stavans rues the rejection by dictionaries of such spectacular vernacular words asthe Mexican street term for kitsch, rascuachismo, the remembrance of which affects Stavans with its elastic, ambivalent connotations. In "Dr. Johnson's Visit," he imagines receiving the great 18th-century lexicographer in his home and showing him his shelf of Cervantes translations-English, he notes proudly, was the first language the great author's work was translated into. Delicious little essays of powerful intellectual curiosity.

Product Details

Graywolf Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.26(w) x 7.16(h) x 0.96(d)

Meet the Author

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest books include Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language and The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >