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Dictionaries

One of my hobbies is reading dictionaries; not cover to cover, because that would take an age, but dipping in and out. I love to learn about languages – both French and English, because I am bilingual. I especially love etymology, which is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.

I have several dictionaries on my desk (pictured) which are well-thumbed. I never throw out a dictionary, even when it is old and fraying; they are the most soulful of books, I think, veritable treasure troves of learning. Along with general dictionaries, I have those for bilingual translation, synonyms (thesauri) and rhyming – not because I am a poet, but because I love the rhythm of rhyme.

Today, for fun, I am sharing ten things I have learned about dictionaries, some of which may just surprise you.

1. Dictionaries in various forms have existed right back to the earliest writings, but they were not so-called. Englishman John of Garland – graduate of the Universities of Oxford and Paris and master at the University of Toulouse – first coined the term ‘dictionary’ in 1220. He called the book he had written to help readers of Latin the Dictionarius.

2. The first single-language English dictionary was published in 1604 by a teacher named Robert Cawdrey and entitled Table Alphabeticall. At the time, advances in literature, science, medicine and the arts were creating all kinds of new words, and Cawdrey endeavoured to capture these and bring some order to the English language. The book had no words beginning with J, K, U, W, X or Y. A copy of this book is held to this day by the Bodleian Library, Oxford (a wonderful place to visit, I may add, if you ever have the chance).

3. Samuel Johnson laid the foundations for modern dictionaries. In 1755 he published the first really reliable modern (for its time) dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language. It was so good that it was the standard dictionary for more than a century (until Oxford University began on their great work – see below). Samuel’s entries were sometimes colourful; ‘excise’, for example, was defined as ‘a hateful tax collected by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid’, and ‘dull’ was defined as ‘not exhilarating, not delightful: as, “to make dictionaries is dull work”’.

4. The Oxford English Dictionary – in print to this day, and right here on my desk – was first published in 1928 in no less than 12 volumes, after 50 years’ work. Today, the dictionary is still widely regarded as the go-to source, with quarterly updates of new words (published at http://public.oed.com/whats-new/). Interestingly, though, back when it was first compiled, one of its main contributors was a man named William Chester Minor from his room in a mental asylum, in which he had been incarcerated for murder. To this day, people are invited to contribute to the dictionary: http://public.oed.com/the-oed-appeals/about-the-oed-appeals/.

5. Noah Webster spent 27 years researching and compiling his American Dictionary of the English Language, and to do so he learned some 26 languages. The final published work contained 12,000 words never before contained in a dictionary!

6. Dictionaries began as prescriptive: the compiler laid down hard-and-fast rules. For example, Noah Webster decided that color should be the American spelling for the British English colour, and center the spelling for centre. These days, dictionaries are more descriptive, exploring usage rather than decreeing it. Basically, those who compile dictionaries don’t necessarily approve of words, they simply report the words that people are using, and how.

7. Lexicography is the word used to describe the study of dictionaries. In fact, no one thought to study them until the 20th century. A man named Ladislav Zgusta, professor of linguistics and classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was the first to write a guide to lexicography in 1955, and he is seen as the godfather of the field.

8. All dictionaries are out of date. As Samuel Johnson put it, “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” Because language is constantly evolving, no dictionary can keep perfect pace. Still, there is a lot that can be learned from any dictionary.

9. A dictionary is a wonderful tool for a writer, but it does not teach one to write. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “It is often forgotten that [dictionaries] are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.”

10. The longest word in an English dictionary is Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. It was conceived in 1935 by the then-president of the American National Puzzlers’ League, as a deliberate attempt to create the longest word in the English language. It worked: the synonym for silicosis, which refers to a lung disease, found its way into major dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word thus: ‘an artificial long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust’. A word well worth learning to impress, if not overly useful in conversation, correspondence and, in my case, romantic fiction…

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Where do you read books? On the train, perhaps, and in a doctor’s waiting room; in a few spare minutes before going out, or while the pasta is simmering on the stove. Keen readers grab moments to read wherever and whenever they can.

But the best reading – the inspiring, transformative, comforting reading – is not to be found in these stolen moments; it is to be found in your reading corner.

An article shared on the LitHub website recently got me thinking about reading corners. In his piece ‘How technology makes us less free’, Franklin Foer writes about silent reading, reading in isolation in a space that is private and comfortable, so that all inhibitions disappear.

“[W]e habitually retreat with our book to private spaces, where we don’t need to worry about social conventions, where the world can’t possibly read over our shoulder,” he writes. “We read in our little corners, our beds and tubs and dens, because we have a sense that these are the places where we can think best.”

As a writer, I am often asked about my writing space – where is it, what does it contain, how essential is the space to my writing? It is accepted that all writers need, in some sense, Virginia Woolf’s vision of ‘a room of one’s own’ in order to write fiction.

But the dedicated reader also needs that room of one’s own. A reading corner, where peace and solitude and security break down the barrier between book and self, so that as you read you are one, infused with the meaning of the words, lost in the story world or moved by the argument.

“I have sought for happiness everywhere, but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book.” So wrote Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ (1418–1427). Thomas was a priest, so I imagine he had a good choice of quiet corners available to him in the monastery. These days, books are far more widely available – and there are many more book corners to discover and adopt.

I have two book corners. In good weather, I read in a gazebo in my garden. I love the scent of the flowers, the hum of the insects and chatter of the birds, the caress of the sun and the breeze, and the glorious colours all around. When Nature is whipping up a windstorm or hurling down raindrops from on high, then I have a favourite reading chair in the living room. It is near the window, for natural light, but also the fire, for cheery warmth. It is in close proximity to a bookshelf, which sets the scene and reassures me that once this book is finished there are plenty more to read.

I know other readers whose corner is the bathtub, or the kitchen table, or the bed. One friend reads at a favourite spot in the local library; that is her quiet place.

Do you have a reading corner, a place that you designate for the pleasure of reading? I would love to hear about it.

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Do you remember that ‘last day of school’ feeling before the summer holidays? Other than Christmas Eve, I think it was the most wonderful time in my childhood. While I enjoyed school, I enjoyed far more the freedom of those long, lazy days: freedom to paddle in the ocean, build sand castles, take picnics in meadows, fill sketch books with drawings – and read, of course to read. For me, the summer holidays were especially precious because they meant so much time in which to devour books. My ‘to read’ pile would be teetering on Day One of the holidays, and I loved that.

Even now, all these years on, I associate the summer with reading, though of course my books of choice are a little different now. I love going to the bookstore to build that teetering ‘to read’ pile that will define my summer. When I browse the romance novels, I am always looking for those that tick my four ‘summer holiday read’ boxes:

1. An exotic, vivid setting: I don’t want to read a novel set in a dreary, rain-soaked town; I want to visit, in my imagination, someplace really special and exciting, someplace on my wish list for travelling. It needn’t necessarily be hot, but I’m likely to prefer a book set in sunny climbs over a wintry novel. Most of all, I need takes-you-there writing; I need to be transported to the setting.

2. Sublimely romantic romance: It has to be so, so romantic. Breathtakingly passionate and evocative. I want summer love – to fall in love with the hero, to be a part of the love story.

3. Compelling drama: I want to be gripped, to struggle to put the book down. I want to be sitting on a beach, heart thumping. I want a lot of story to entertain and challenge me. I want the book to be memorable, so that when I look back on this summer, I remember my reading.

4. A beautiful book: The book itself must be inspiring, beautiful. A vivid, colourful cover. A good-quality paper, when in paperback. And thick: for me, the thicker the better. There is something so reassuring to me about a big book, which holds the promise of so many hours of reading ahead.

Readers of my romance fiction will know that not only do I love books like this to read, but I write them too. My novels all feature exotic settings, epic romance and gripping drama, and thanks to my wonderful publisher London Wall and talented cover artist, they are objects of beauty, in paperback especially. They are, I hope, perfect holiday reads, guaranteed to make you sigh dreamily.

What do you look for in a holiday read? Do you read different books in the summer to the rest of the year? Do you have any favourite holiday reads? How many books do you line up ready for holiday reading (and do you, like me, feel somewhat anxious about running out!). I would love to hear your thoughts.

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‘Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ So wrote satirist P. J. O’Rourke.

Of course, he was joking. We should read whatever we want to read! But I think this quotation touches on a very real discomfort in readers over being judged for reading choices.

Recently, reports have emerged of a new practice at airport security in the US. The Bookseller in the UK reported: ‘Security staff in US airports have reportedly been demanding passengers clear all the reading material out of their hand luggage into a separate bin during safety searches so that staff can search for items made of paper.’

The argument for the practice – which will likely be rolled out across all US airports – is understandable. Carry-on bags are often full of items, and analysts at X-ray machines can struggle to see past books. But passengers have not taken kindly to having to throw their books into a bin and then watch as security officials leaf through the pages.

The American Civil Liberties Union has publicly raised concerns, outlining the ‘long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States’ (full details are at https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-future/new-tsa-policy-may-lead-increased-scrutiny-reading-material).

Reading privacy isn’t a new issue. Since the rise of e-readers, for example, concerned readers have been questioning how much data is being collected on reading choices and habits. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported on this back in 2012 in ‘Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy’. Their conclusion: ‘reading e-books means giving up more privacy than browsing through a physical bookstore or library, or reading a paper book in your own home’.

In whatever area this issue crops up, one thing is clear: readers do not like to have their privacy invaded.

What are you reading? It’s a common enough question. But are you always happy to answer that question honestly? Let me put it another way: can a reader always be confident in any situation that he or she will not be judged for what he or she is reading?

Take the 50 Shades series of books when they were at the height of their popularity. On London trains at rush hour, how many people were reading these ‘The Next Big Thing’ books? Plenty, I am sure. Some were holding up paperbacks, happy to let other commuters see what they were reading. Others, though, weren’t prepared to read erotica in public, and so they read on an e-reader – quietly, privately.

It is easy to say, ‘We should read what we want, when we want, and be “out and proud” about our choices.’ But life isn’t so black and white. Whether we like it or not, judgements are made. (At the airport, just imagine the reaction at Security when it emerges a traveller is reading a thriller about terrorism.)

Novelist Siri Hustvedt wrote, ‘Reading is a private pursuit; one that takes place behind closed doors.’ I agree that it is a reader’s right to read in this way. By all means, readers may choose to share books they have read and discuss them publicly. But a reader is entirely free to read without an audience.

Ultimately, I think a reader should never be compelled to answer that intrusive question: What are you reading?

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I love books. I love to browse books, choose books, purchase books, collect books – and, of course, read books!

If, like me, you are a bibliophile, you will know well the happiness a book can bring: finding a hidden treasure in a second-hand bookstore, eagerly buying your favourite author’s new novel on publication day, simply holding a book in your hands and using it as a magic portal into a story world. For me, though, the greatest happiness of all is not to be found in holding a book in my own hands, but in passing one to another.

Giving books, quite simply, is a beautiful act. Soul-stirring. Life-affirming. Joy-creating.

Many people, myself included, enjoy choosing books to give as presents for friends and loved ones for occasions like birthdays and Christmas. A book is a thoughtful gift, after all, and choosing the right one means the giver has the perfect excuse to spend an hour (or more!) in a bookstore.

But increasingly book-lovers are going a step further, and finding ever more fun and creative ways to gift books.

What’s the best gift of all? A surprise gift. Imagine walking through a park on a sunny summer’s day, when your eye catches something colourful amid the green leaves of a tree. You go up on tiptoes to investigate and discover a book – a novel, wrapped up in green ribbon. Intrigued, you reach up and take down the book. On the cover you see a little sticker on which is a picture of a book with wings and, beneath, a gentle instruction: ‘Take this book, read it, and leave it for the next person to enjoy.’ You’ve just received a gift from a Book Fairy.

The Book Fairies (http://ibelieveinbookfairies.com/) are a group of book-lovers all over the world who leave books for people to find. Currently, there are 5,000 people sharing copies across 100 countries. Anyone can be a book fairy; all you do is pop on an instruction sticker (available inexpensively and in various languages from the Book Fairies website) and then leave the book someplace it will be discovered. Many Book Fairies post Instagram pictures of their gifts in situ, as a clue.

The Book Fairies grew out of Books on the Underground (http://booksontheunderground.co.uk/), which works in the same way: each week, around 150 free books are left on the London Underground system, in stations and on trains, for travellers to enjoy. (New York has its own version, Books on the Subway: https://www.booksonthesubway.com/.)

A key part of the concept is that whoever receives a free book eventually passes this book on to another reader, so theoretically these free books should remain in constant circulation, turning public spaces into libraries. The exchange principle draws on the ever-popular Little Free Libraries scheme (https://littlefreelibrary.org/), which originated in the US, in which readers are able to access micro-libraries in all sorts of places, donating a book in exchange for taking one.

What all of these programmes have in common is that they are run by volunteers, simply for the love of books. They want to promote reading and to widen access to books, especially important books; last week, for example, actress Emma Watson donned her Book Fairy hat and hid 100 copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in Paris.

Most of all, though, book givers want to bring a ray of sunshine to a fellow reader’s day. Giving a book – even to a stranger you will never meet – has a fabulous feel-good factor, because of the goodwill behind the gesture. As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: ‘A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.’

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