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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Dentist Who Couldn't Spell

In the front window of a new dental office, under the doctor's name, was written: General Dentistry and Oral Sergery. I stared at the word sergery for a while, uncomfortable laughter tickling my throat. I wondered how much business that dentist was going to lose because of the misspelling on his front window.

Most people, however, don't take (mis)spelling as seriously as I do. A shrug, a "So what?" and they turn the joke against me, laugh at my obsession with grammar and call me a vocabulary snob. I can't say I don't entirely deserve it. I'm overly sensitive about being a non-native English speaker and my snobbishness is a side-effect of this sensitivity. I feel guilty if I don't look up words I don't understand in the dictionary, and will get out of bed at night, after we've turned off the lights and settled for sleep, in order to check if the explanation for insalubrious that I gave Husband ten minutes before is the correct one. I regularly write drafts of notes to Husband or to my family that, after being read once, are unceremoniously crumpled and flung into the garbage. I don't think there's anything -- not my face, not my clothes, sometimes not even my behavior -- that reflects more strongly on me than the words I use. Carelessness about language seems to me not an amusing quirk (and I'm not talking here about dialect, which is in a category all of its own), not a trivial thing like walking into a room with dirty shoes, but a serious character flaw. If you're sloppy with language, you're sloppy with thinking -- that's how my reasoning goes.

Needless to say, there's a lot of heartache and agony that comes with this reasoning, some of it not entirely worthwhile. After all, there are more important things to worry about than bad grammar; how about global warming and world hunger and the AIDS epidemic? On the other hand, I'm glad that the people who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary didn't think that way and spent lifetimes gathering up and putting down all that is known about the lives of words. Running my hands and my eyes over the pages of the OED I'm tempted to think about language as a kind of food, a kind of medicine for the body and the soul. It has to be handled with care.


Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

Do you have the compact or the regular edition of the OED? I've always wanted to meet someone with the complete 20-volume edition -- someone who had really made a commitment, in terms of money and shelf space, to a life of words.

Thanks to Beth, I have access to the online OED, which gets me the knowledge without the sheer physical miracle of holding the consecrated volume in my hand.

October 24, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

I don't have the complete edition; that's a purchase I will make when I win the lottery and can buy a house where there's enough room for a study with built-in bookshelves and one of those pedestals that you see at the library, where each month, by rotation, a different volume of the OED will lie open and in front of which I will spend the many insomniac nights of my old age.

October 25, 2006  

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