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Front Porch: Taking time to dig into a dictionary

Thu., May 29, 2014, midnight

My friend Hugh Davis has a rather eclectic collection of antique things, many of which have to do with words and communication. He used to have 19 vintage typewriters, but his wife persuaded him that the space they occupied could perhaps be better used otherwise.

But he does love books, and his daughter Dana recently gave him a wonderful old dictionary as a gift, one she found in an antique store here in Spokane. It is the 1904 Common Sense Dictionary with Every Day Helps. KnowingI , too, would appreciate all this book represents, he kindly loaned it to me, and I have been gently turning the pages ever since.

Good books take you to wondrous places, teach you significant things, challenge you, make you laugh or cry, and bring so much to your brain and soul. This book that I now have in my hands does all of these things. This is a look back at who we were more than a century ago, not in narrative form but one word at a time.

With its brown soft-leather cover looking much like a well-used, thumb-indexed Bible, it has more than 1,200 illustrations and many full-page plates. I peruse it gently and at leisure, beginning with the introduction, which informs me that this book supplies busy people with the information they need “in the most expeditious manner possible, freed from all superfluities that bewilder rather than help.” I am in love with it already and begin with the letter A.

In 1904, the word “ambulance” is defined as “an itinerant hospital for the wounded in battle; a sort of wagon for conveying sick or injured persons.” The very next word is “ambuscade,” the place where troops lie in wait. Quaint definitions certainly, but bespeaking the times, only a few years after the Spanish-American War. “Aeroplane,” spelled in that manner just a year after the Wright brothers flew into history at Kitty Hawk, is defined as “a recent invention for special aerial navigation having a broad plane surface inclining upward and propelled by some light power.”

Many other wonderful definitions are there to discover in letters B through Z, but the best part of this dictionary is in the Every Day Helps at the back, beginning in the “Words, Phrases and Noteworthy Sayings” section, where I learn that “bavardage” means “idle talk.” Under “Weights and Measures,” I find listings for apothecaries’ weights, measurements of stationery and paper and avoirdupois weight (for groceries, drugs and heavy goods). Apparently, there was a time when these things were significant for the general public to know.

“Postal Information” reveals I can mail a letter to Mexico for 2 cents and a post card to Canada for 1 cent. There is much fun to be had in “Popular Sobriquets of Cities and Localities.” For example, I learn that “Porkopolis” is “a derisive nickname for Cincinnati, referring to the extensive pork-packing enterprises located there.”

You can learn almost anything you needed to know at the time from the back section of this glorious book, from how to obtain a copyright to the meaning of common first names, and how to write a letter to frequent errors in spelling and writing. (Don’t use “depot” when you mean “station.”)

Also provided there are copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In 1904, there are only 15 amendments. Yet to be adopted are Congress’ ability to levy an income tax, prohibition and its repeal, women’s right to vote, presidential term limits, elimination of the poll tax in voting and lowering the voting age to 18. It’s hard to fathom that these weren’t always part of the Constitution.

I also note that under “Derivation of Geographical Names,” the word “reich” is defined as a kingdom, monarchy or dominion and that the example given is of Oesterreich, Austria. No mention of the 20th century’s most infamous one, the Third Reich of Nazi Germany, because it hadn’t happened yet.

“State Statistics and Interesting Facts” yields this tidbit: The name “California” means “hot furnace.” I’ll bet California’s namers had no idea just how burning hot their furnace would get. The “Gazetteer of the World” gives some interesting facts about our own Washington, described simply as a western state. Seattle has the largest population, of course, with 80,671 souls. Tacoma comes in second with 37,714 and Spokane is third with 36,848. It’s interesting that Spokane and Tacoma have been trading back and forth for more than a century now over second and third place in population. Only towns with a population of 1,000 or more are listed, meaning that Pasco and Kennewick didn’t make the cut. Walla Walla came in fourth with 10,049.

I love books and can easily get lost in them. I love to hold them, feel them, sometimes smell them. Oh sure, I know the tactile sensation of the experience is being Kindled away, but I’ve made peace with that. It’s about the reading after all and where that experience takes you. I’ll be returning the dictionary to Hugh this week; it isn’t mine, but I am so enriched by the thought journey it has taken me on.

And that is exactly what a good book is supposed to do.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ Previous columns are available at columnists.

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