Friday, December 15, 2006

1940 Dictionary

It all started when I asked the brothers if anybody knew what was meant by “ember days” in the pre-Vatican II Roman Church. Since nobody did, one of the brothers grabbed a dictionary and handed it to me, and I learned that they are “in the R.C. and Anglican Churches, twelve days of the year set apart for fasting and prayer, namely the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays after the first Sunday in Lent, after Whitsunday, after September 14, and after December 13.” The more significant discovery, however, was not the meaning of ember days but the dictionary itself.

It is called the New Universities Webster Dictionary, published in 1940. Being interested in words, I leafed through it a bit. My usual dictionary is the latest edition from Merriam-Webster, but I am dissatisfied with it. Probably 20-25% of the words I look up are not in it. Often such words are archaic or of chiefly British usage (OK, so I like to read British authors!). But this old dictionary offered me some hope. I remember a reference in a book, by a turn of the 20th century British author, to a “cup of bastard.” Naturally, this intrigued me, so I looked up “bastard” in my all-too-modern dictionary and found only the most common definition of the word. Ah, but in my 1940 dictionary I found out that a cup of bastard is a cup of “a coarse brown sugar made from syrup previously boiled.”

Now it is not only for such curiosities that this dictionary is valuable. It is a testimony to a time when language was not merely a tool of technology or a functional bit of the apparatus of communication. It was a time when people used to delight in words and in expressions that were not necessarily concise or utilitarian. For example, the definition of Vespers is “the sixth or last but one of the canonical hours, observed in the R.C. Church by the chanting of psalms and Magnificat or antiphon of the Virgin Mary.” It’s not merely the sixth of seven hours; it is the “last but one.” And in what modern dictionary would you find this detailed definition of mysticism: “the doctrine that communion with God and a knowledge of the divine essence may be attained independent of the senses or processes of reason through intuition or insight; hence, the ecstasy of those who claim they have had insight or visions bringing them into spiritual union with the eternal and giving them knowledge of the supernatural; the teachings or doctrines of the Mystics who claimed they had direct communication with God and gained knowledge of spiritual things which are beyond the natural faculties to understand and, consequently, unexplainable: Bernard of Clairvaux and St Bonaventure are the best known of the men Mystics, while St Theresa is the outstanding figure among women Mystics.” Not the kind of stuff you find in today’s dictionaries full of computer jargon and carefully defined obscenities.

And do we not wish that the most up-to-date dictionary offered this definition of “abortionist” that we find in the 1940 edition: “one who is guilty of the crime of procuring a criminal abortion.” The modern dictionary has “one who induces abortions.”

It is quite striking that in the course of a few decades, not only has the way we use language changed, but the respect for the Church and her life, which was evident then even in secular reference works, has all but disappeared. We see as well how the mentality has changed towards what was formerly and universally considered evil. I must confess that I much prefer the 1940 dictionary to the modern ones, even though I must use these latter if I’m looking up the definition for “blog” or some other newfangled word. In losing the feel for a somewhat quaint (and not merely quaint, but actually more robust) expression of the English language, we’ve also lost something of the spirit of poetry, imagination, and even faith.

Now there’s even a “text message” Bible, which reads like this: “In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth” (Gen. 1:1), and like this: “God luvd da ppl of dis wrld so much dat he gave his only Son, so dat evry1 who has faith in him will have eternal life & neva really die” (John 3:16). Visualize me putting my finger down my throat!

Well, I won’t go on and on. I’ll just look up a few more words in my newfound old dictionary. I just noticed, under “Protestant Reformation,” that after a fairly standard definition, they added: “Roman Catholics very much resent the word Reformation, as applied to the movement.” And for a final bit of edification, I leave you with the definition for “Holy Roller”: “one of a religious sect in the U.S., the members of which, when under influence of religious fervor, give way to exciting emotions, jump up and down and, at times, roll themselves on the floor.”