Dictionaries and tyrannical grannies
How many of us still look up unknown words and spellings in a big, weighty paper volume called a dictionary, instead of online? I do so quite often, hauling out my wrist-breaking tome and paging through it, embracing the dangers of a paper cut and a little extra effort.
I can picture that fifty years from now, I’ll be the elderly curiosity in a family gathering … when an unknown word crops up, or a Scrabble dispute breaks out, I shall heave myself up and hobble off to the bookshelf to fetch the dictionary whilst the younger generations wave their phones and other gadgets in the air, confused expressions on their faces as they tell my retreating back that they already have the answer.
But I will stubbornly persist – perhaps pretend I don’t hear them? – and will eventually waddle back into the room, tilting to the side because of the weighty antiquity tucked under my arm.
I will sit down, page through it, most assiduously ignoring the sighs and complaints of boredom, and I will nod my head as I’m told the digital definition, all the while still paging through, and finally nodding in assent, “Yes, you’re right, tinctorial does mean to stain or dye something.” The young’uns will raise eyebrows and nod to each other, eyes agleam with filial mockery, whilst the very young will throw their hands up in exaggerated horror, telling me they told me so.
BUT, just as they’re all leaning forward to resume the game, or the meal, or the whatever, I will hold up a bony (or chubby?) finger and claim the floor once more, saying, “Now that is interesting … just here on the same page … do you know what a ‘timocracy’ is?”
“Huh?” will come the universal reply.
“A ti-mo-cra-cy.” I will enunciate. “Anybody?”
Of course nobody will have a clue, and I will flash a short, sly smile of my own into the pages of the open book.
“A timocracy – t-i-m-o-c-r-a-c-y – is a ‘political system in which possession of property is a requirement for participation in government’.”
I will glance up with reproof at their impassive, bored stares, and (old lady that I am) plough on. “OR,” I will say, with great stress, “it can also refer to ‘a political system in which love of honour is deemed the guiding principle of government’. Now isn’t that interesting?” More bemused looks while folks consider how long a pause is necessary before they can resume their pre-dictionary-episode activity and the youngest grimaces over how irritating Nana is.
Just as I hear someone inhale to speak, I shall jump in with, “It says here the word derived from sixteenth-century France, and before that from the Greek timokratia, where timē means worth or honour.” I will then snap the volume shut and look up – happy, unperturbed and really quite innocent – no doubt to meet with expressions that thinly disguise I am an old, tyrannical fossil.
Until, that is, one small soul admits to the spark of a thought. “A government based on honour…?” They all ponder this for a moment. “No way!” this child will say, disbelief evident on his face. Smugly, I will say nothing.
I will at this point gently ease myself back into my chair. Happy to be guiding the mini mass before me, I will quietly contemplate my budding wunderkinds, nodding along intermittently to the ensuing discussion on noble government and men who fall on their swords. I will be the very picture of white-haired amiability and redundancy.
Whether or not I will leave it there for the day, or will verbally (and superciliously?) spell out a little moral to the story, or will perhaps delineate the dictionary as the Wikipedia of my youth, is uncertain. I have not quite decided on the overriding personality of my twilight years; will I be the archetypal wearer of purple socks who eats sausage all day? a saucy, cutting Betty White? a watery-eyed trembler who uses aches and pains to have my way? a softly spoken background meddler, artfully camouflaged in my curtain-like floral jacket? or a quiet little sage who trots out unhelpfully helpful quotes at tense moments? Time will tell.
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