My grandfather, who lived in a time period when big, bound dictionaries were as valuable as a starter-yacht, purchased a set of dictionaries from a traveling salesman. This effusive little man- not my grandfather, who was not little- instructed my grandfather that two payments would suffice.
When the first volume arrived, it instantly became the heaviest book in the house. How heavy was it? It could kill a mouse, a squirrel, or a peaceful moment in one swift, declining drop. At 1,344 pages, from “a” to “pocket veto,” it was a treasure, albeit outside the cedar treasure chest.
My grandfather, following his education, had a passion for knowledge, and taught himself engineering to help him advance in his career. But, he would have rather been a sailor or a ship’s captain, on account of his love of the sea and of a good boat. When he was on his boat, he would fish, and become less studious, and become disgusted with himself, because, after all, he’d paid all that money…and not a little…for the most extensive dictionary volumes one could buy.
My father grew up with the two volume The New Century Dictionary…and a large set of encyclopedias….as the main sources of information outside of the wit and wisdom of the Seanachai, the storytellers in the family. They might have had a way with history, and the encyclopedias may not have measured up in some cases, but the dictionary stood as the final say for spelling…and though increasingly dated as the decades passed, a first source for the more eclectic vocabulary that my grandfather acquired.
This two-set volume from 1927 has passed on to me, as the caretaker of a now-dated work of reference and amusement. It contains fine phrases and explanations from the Roaring Twenties that may not be the best source for the Terrible Twenties….I mean the 2020s.
Glancing through the New Century, one finds many words not in vogue in the second decade of the 21st Century.
But, for the character of the 1920s, the books are a gas, a sensation, a talk-of-the-town. Here you’ll find all the dirt on “frippery” and how “tawdry” it was…essentially silly…as “she who wore a hat wore a statement of absurdity.”
A sanitorium was a good place, not a place for mindless ninnies. Pennies from Heaven were a good thing, a penny for your thoughts had no attachment to financial value, and references to the appearance of a “bluebird” was a happy occasion. Conversely, one sang “Bye bye” to a blackbird.
The pages are adorned with drawings of a “barb” (a linen covering for the throat and breast), a whelk, and examples of 15th century gorgets. Every page contains at least one, and as many as four, artistic details. The finery is remarkable, particularly considering the low-tech methods used in publishing said pages.
Although the collecting of old books has faded in popularity as the screen has taken over the common world, an antiquated book can be a great substitute for the mindlessly predictable entertainment from the programmed screen world and the equally predictable “print” world via screen. Like the new Century Dictionary, it can be light reading while waiting for your dinner to cook, or your mail to arrive, or for the children to come home from school.