dictionary page

The following is a guest post by Lisa Tulfer, a writer and blogger based in England.

As a child, I didn’t have much access to books. I was home educated, living in a foreign country with little interaction with that country’s language or culture, and English-language books were simply not available to buy. This was in the 1970s and early 80s, before Amazon could even be imagined, and once a year my father would make the 48-hour journey by long-distance bus and cross-Channel ferry to England to visit the famous Foyles’ bookshop in London and bring back a year’s worth of school books and a handful of reading books – whatever he could fit into his kit-bag. Those reading books were so precious, and I would re-read them dozens of times, until I knew them almost by heart. His selection was perhaps idiosyncratic – lots of Enid Blyton, that staple of British children’s reading during the mid-twentieth century whose work is now very controversial, although, living in my little bubble, I was completely oblivious to the issues at the time. Also Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. But curiously no children’s classics like Beatrix Potter or A.A. Milne. I was in my teens before I heard of Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh, but Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven were the siblings I never had, and her school stories gave me the only glimpse I had, skewed and partial though it was, of what life might be like for other girls.

When we went to stay with my Dutch grandmother she introduced me to classic crime fiction, at an age which most people would probably decree as much too young – I was certainly reading Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers by the age of ten or so, and was soon onto Erle Stanley Gardner and then Raymond Chandler. My grandmother was a voracious reader of books in English, both British and American, and crime was her preferred genre. I blame my ongoing addiction to Golden Age crime writing on her early influence. But while this may have been what shaped me as a reader – and meant that I wanted to be a private detective when I grew up! – it is not what made me a writer. That is a different book altogether.

On the top shelf of the bookcase was a smallish dark blue book. It was narrow in proportion to its height, and rather thicker than its binding could quite support, so it tended to sag a little. It was hardback, cloth covered, and embossed with a crest. The title, in gilded letters, had faded and chipped over the years, but was still just about legible: The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary. This was the love of my life, the book I would take to bed with me, the book I could not go a day without reading, the book that preserved me from boredom and loneliness, and that satisfied my endless curiosity about the world and the words we use to describe it.

I have written about being brought up bilingually, and how great a gift I think this was. There are obvious advantages, of course – being able to engage with cultures and people in more than one language, realising that the world is a diverse place, and finding it more difficult to engage in the ‘othering’ of people because I can’t help but know what it is to be ‘other’ myself. It enables me to be both a participant and an observer in both my heritages – and this is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Or rather, it is an advantage that has a corresponding cost, as it also means that identity is a complicated and nuanced thing, which is not always comfortable. I am both British and Dutch, and neither. ‘Home’ and ‘belonging’ are difficult concepts for me. But being of mixed heritage, and bilingual, saves me from thinking that mine is the only way, the only culture, the only language, and that all others are wrong, and for that I am deeply grateful – because it is that misconception which, I believe, is at the root of so much of society’s conflicts.

But, even more than the effect on my identity and world view, I think the greatest impact of my bilingual upbringing has been on my relationship with language. Being fluent in two languages, I was very aware that languages are not equivalent – some words are simply untranslatable. They involve a cultural concept which does not exist in the culture of another language, and it takes a whole sentence to achieve even a rough approximation of the meaning. I think an appreciation of this has driven my desire to find the right words in everything I say or (especially) write – to use words with care, consciously, with an understanding of their meaning, origins and associations.

In English, I am fascinated by the derivations of words, coming as they do from roots which reflect the wave after wave of peoples, cultures and languages which have occupied and influenced Britain – Celtic, Roman, Germanic, Scandinavian, French, and the languages of the peoples encountered during the colonial era. I am writing this on a computer (Latin), seated on a chair (French, derived from the Latin), drinking water (Germanic) from a glass (from Old English, so also Germanic). My desk (Greek via Latin) is covered in papers (ditto). I’m wearing a shawl (Sanskrit), and outside my window (Germanic) the sun (ditto) is finally shining after a thunderstorm (Scandinavian, Germanic) during which the torrential rain (Germanic) turned my lawn (Celtic) into a bog (Celtic). Understanding the workings of words – where they originate, what family of words they are from, how their meaning and use has evolved through the centuries, what historical, cultural and societal baggage they carry, and what response they evoke now in a listener or reader – this is the process which that modest dark blue book, The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary, first began to equip me for all those years ago. This was my epiphany, my vocation. I might not have had many books written by other people, but I had a book of words, and with those words I could craft writing of my own.

I am now in my fifties, and writing is still – in fact, more than ever – my ‘thing’, my job and my passion. I still read dictionaries as if they were novels. I still take pains to select the right word, turning each candidate over on my tongue like wine, savouring it, trying it out for what it can bring to the table, how it will complement the other elements of the feast. I take trouble not only about what I write, but how I write it – the effect on the reader of how I put the words together as well as their dictionary meanings. I don’t always get it right. But it all started, not with Lewis Carroll or Agatha Christie, but with The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary. I know dictionaries are now available online – I even use them myself now and again, when I’m not within reach of the mighty Chambers Dictionary which lives beside my desk – but there is nothing to match the serendipity of opening a tome at a random page and happening across a new word, with its unique story, and making it your own. If you have a young person in your life, and are casting around for an appropriate gift, do consider giving them a dictionary. Who knows, maybe it will shape their lives as much as it shaped mine.

Lisa Tulfer is a writer and blogger (TheThreeHaresBlog.com) based in Somerset, England. She writes mainly non-fiction articles about history and place, with occasional poetry and short fiction. She is working on her first book.