The thought occured to me today on how the dictionary (and the built-in dictionary functionality in Mac OS X, in particular) has really improved my vocabulary. Not so much in the realm of expansion, per se, but more so in my understanding. For example, how many times do we find ourselves using a term, and only somewhat knowing what the term even means? We have a general gist of the word, but not a true grasp on the reality of it.
I have a rather large vocabulary due to two—perhaps more—major reasons: People always told me I’m smart, and I read the encyclopedia when I was around 7 years old. The constant enforcement of the idea that, yes, you are smart is perhaps one of the keys to (at least in my case) a person striving after knowledge, if only to maintain a steady flow of similar positive reinforcement. You want to keep hearing that you are smart, so you try to get smarter, in essence. And thus, at an early age, I started doing things that seem mind-numbingly obtuse, such as tackling every volume of my family’s 1986 edition World Book Encyclopedia—keep in mind, kids, that these were the harrowing days before the public knowledge of and access to the “Intarweb.”
As much as I love to sound smart (yes, I do realise I am fairly pretentious), I find words much more satisfying. I absolutely adore etymology. Before I discovered that etymology was a real study, I thought myself peculiar for always breaking words down in my mind into their roots and trying to figure out how they got to be the way they are. Not long after entering the field of graphic design, I discovered that my love of etymology and words in general translated well into a new love: typography. Soon I was discovering why that bizarre squiggle we call the Ampersand means and—it’s actually a stylised et, from latin, meaning, you guessed it… and. Have a gander at a few and it’s easy to see:
& & & &
You’re probably extremely familiar with et, but you may not even realise it. For example, et cetera (latin: and the rest), et al (latin: and others/other people), et seq (latin: et sequentia: and the following things/and what follows) and maybe even et ux (latin: and wife). The inner word geek rejoices when I find nuggets of knowledge in the dictionary such as this:
Et cetera (a Latin phrase meaning ‘and the other things, the rest’) is sometimes mispronounced : ‘ex cetera,’ and its abbreviation, properly etc., is often misspelled ‘ect.’ The phrase ‘and et cetera’ is redundant, for et means ‘and’ in Latin. This abbreviation should be used for things, not for people. Et al. (an abbreviation of et alii, ‘and other people, and others’) is properly used for others (people) too numerous to mention, as in a list of multiple authors: Bancroft, Fordwick, et al.
– Oxford American Dictionary
Perhaps I’m crazy, but I find that simply fascinating.