Charming, loose-fitting essays about the sublime and silly pleasures of reading the dictionary.
Mexican-American Stavans (On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, 2002, etc.) is an enormously personable writer, deeply read without letting on that he’s also an academic (Latino American and Latino Culture/Amherst). His essays probe with a light touch his quarry as a “dictionary hunter,” first prompted by his father’s gift of Appleton’s New English-Spanish and Spanish-English Dictionary when Stavans first moved to New York from Mexico in 1985. With it, he read Moby-Dick. He believes a dictionary’s function is to “build character,” and indeed his essay “Pride and Prejudice” mentions many of the lexicographers over the ages who have attempted to impart this very quality to their readers: Aristophanes of Byzantium and his first Lexeis; John Baret’s work of 1573; Samuel Johnson; the Encyclopeadists; Noah Webster; and the editors of the towering Oxford English Dictionary, just to name a few. Stavans includes some fine scholarship in Arabic and Hispanic dictionaries, as well. In “The Invention of Love,” he delineates how definitions of love (in different language dictionaries) help define a culture, while “The Zebra and the Swear Word” explores hilariously erroneous information given by dictionaries, such as the definition for day offered by the modern Real Academia Espanola as “the time the Sun takes to apparently circle the Earth.” And where, he wonders, are the swear words in the OED—words everybody uses but lexicographers are still embarrassed by? (There’s a nice catalogue of them.) “In the Land of Lost Words,” Stavans rues the rejection by dictionaries of such spectacular vernacular words as the Mexican street term for kitsch, rascuachismo, the remembrance of which affects Stavans with its elastic, ambivalent connotations. In “Dr. Johnson’s Visit,” he imagines receiving the great 18th-century lexicographer in his home and showing him his shelf of Cervantes translations—English, he notes proudly, was the first language the great author’s work was translated into.
Delicious little essays of powerful intellectual curiosity.