The first favorite holiday gift that popped into my head while reading this week's blog topic was the unabridged dictionary that my parents finally gave me after four years of pleading and pouting. I'd been weaned on picture book and early reader dictionaries. Carried slim paperback, jumbo font, black and white illustrated dictionaries in my book bags throughout grammar school. These juvenile dictionaries were dispensed periodically by my parents with school supplies and other essential reading materials required for academic achievement. But for some reason that I didn't quite grasp, an unabridged dictionary (for serious wordaholics) was an uncool personal Christmas gift. It was an okay family gift, but not something a 13-year old girl should be asking her parents for. It was the shunned and denied and too-practical-to-be-practical gift that wasn't good enough in my father's estimation to rank in the top ten spot on my childhood Christmas list, but there it was year after year, in all its intellectual geekiness and educational blandness. The hands down winner for the nerdiest gift ever asked for in the Grayson household – Webster's New Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary: Second Edition Deluxe-Color (Simon and Schuster).
Sheathed in its white and rainbow-striped dust jacket, the nine-pound, 2306-page marvel easily rivaled the school's outdated edition. In my estimation, the pricey tome, still a constant and reliable writing companion three decades later, was worth every cent of my father's hard earned money – a hefty $75 at the time. Webster's Unabridged was the it dictionary of its day. According to the Dust Jacket Blurber, it was the "most readable" unabridged dictionary in print:
"Many new entries have been added, including recent additions . . . Such entries as SAMIZDAT, QUADROPHONIC, CLONING, URBANOLOGY, ECOCIDE, and WATERGATE testify that this is an unabridged dictionary that is up-to-date. Especially useful are the many idiomatic phrases that have been added . . ."
For those not in the know: Groovy as defined on page 803– a.; comp. groovier; superl. grooviest, [from old slang in the groove, working effortlessly,] very pleasing or attractive: a generalized term of approval. [Slang.]
Before my Unabridged, I'd get distracted looking up words in those less inspiring, word-deficient tomes of knowledge. Spent untold hours reading the entries like I would any other book, fascinated by the sounds and origins of words. Curious about who first spoke them, and what type of people wrote the definitions and vetted the entries. I often wondered, could I, a budding epistemologist, a word junkie, a closet bibliophile, ever work with Mr. Webster defining and making up words to describe the ever-changing world that engaged me? I fantasized about studying library science or linguistics in college, being fluent in five or six languages and reading first person accounts of ancient texts in their languages of origin. Reading transported me to different places, heightened my thoughts and fueled my overactive imagination, but the dictionary was a different vade mecum altogether. It empowered me in ways that intimidated my peers, and more than a few of my morpheme mangling teachers.
Initially, my father was not convinced that an unabridged was a good value, and used the parental logic on me that only works with gullible kids.
The first year I asked: It's not an age appropriate gift.
Year two: For the money I'd spend on this one gift, I could buy you x number of fun gifts. Still, I preferred the one gift I truly wanted, always choosing quality over quantity.
The third year I was told it was too much money to spend on a single book, even though each year's pile of gifts stacked under the tree with my name on it cost much more.
When it looked like my beloved Unabridged was destined to remain indefinitely on my Christmas wish list, I decided to buy it myself. Not quite sure of the price, I put on my best walking shoes and went to the mall, where I found a discounted one in the book store for fifty bucks. Only problem, I didn't have fifty bucks and by the time I earned it babysitting the sale would be over.
Year four. Christmas rolls around again, like it usually does, and for laughs I put the Unabridged on my short list, along with one or two consolation gifts. My attitude at that time was you're going to give me whatever you want me to have, not necessarily what my heart desires, so I'll be grateful for the whatever, and the socks and underwear. Instead, this Christmas morning, I was handed a beautifully wrapped, stout box, one that I was hoping did not contain additional items for the tool kits my father had given each one of us the previous year. (His idea of a practical and fun gift.) Imagine my surprise and delight when I ripped off the paper and finally got the Unabridged I'd been longing for.
Several years later, my parents purchased another Webster's Unabridged, this one for family use. It's still in my mother's home today, accessible to grown grandchildren and their little ones, who are more apt to use Dictionary.com to look up a word, something I also find convenient, but lacking because the site can't fill the 100 millimeter space on my book shelf or the place in my heart that my taped and dog-eared Unabridged does. Mr. Webster and I have too much history between us, like many of my most memorable gifts do.