The back cover says it’s “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s” and offers up a sample of how it can improve word skills through the way it illustrates its entries as well as employs phrases and sentences to demonstrate proper usage. The front is a mish-mash of different images from inside, complete with the bubbly sans serif font that was considered modern for the day, as textbooks and reference materials were trying to show that they were not the stodgy, inaccessible tomes that lined the bookshelves and walls of classrooms and libraries. No, The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary was something else.
That’s a lot to lay on a dictionary, which is quite possibly the most utilitarian reference source you can own. But sometime around the second or third grade, I received my copy. I can’t remember who gave it to me–maybe my parents, maybe an aunt or uncle–I just know that it became a permanent fixture on the bookshelves and for a while, it was one of the coolest books I own. Granted, I have always been a dork when it comes to any textbook or reference book, especially those published from my childhood. I realize that it’s total nostalgia, but seeing one of my old reading books or the social studies textbook from second grade brings back memories of making book covers from a Waldbaum’s shopping bag and flipping ahead to units I hoped we would get to at some point in the year.*
With the dictionary, though, I didn’t have to wait for a teacher to cover anything, and during the next few years, if I wasn’t using the dictionary for actual schoolwork, you could find me flipping through it for fun**. Yes, I realize how that sounds. Like, who flips through the dictionary for fun? Furthermore, how the hell does someone flip through the dictionary for fun and not have that be the moment in the first act of the movie when his parents “knew” that he would grow up to be the inspirational genius that moviegoers have been suckered into watching in the dead of winter because there’s nothing else in the theater?
Come on, people, we’re talking about “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s!”
So what’s so special about this? Why am I giving this so much attention even though it’s just a dictionary? Well, let’s take a tour.
The Illustrations. Upon first glance, you can tell this is going to be a different dictionary than, say, your average Webster’s edition. The cover is bright with illustrations, which are also featured throughout the book. The illustrations were by George Ulrich, who has had a career as an illustrator for children’s books for more than thirty years. It’s a cartoony style of drawing that is also grounded in realism, a calmer, toned-down School House Rock! that accurately represents whatever needs to be shown but doesn’t shy away from being fun on occasion.
The Fonts. As fun as this book is in its illustration, the font choice takes its job seriously. We have a serif font (such as TNR) in place for most of the body text, but Helvetica is in play quite a bit. You might not really notice it, but I freakin’ love the font and I’m pretty sure that this is where my love for Helvetica began. Yes, it’s the very definition of generic, but the cleanness of that sans serif font made everything in the 1980s look and feel newer and slicker. Even today, Helvetica is comfort food to me***.
The History of the English Language. Before you even get to the words and their definitions, there is a section of the dictionary that is the story of English as a language, written and illustrated in that calmer School House Rock! manner. I’d read this section all the way through at one point, although the pictures stuck with me more than any of the text. And the picture that stayed with me the most was probably the most random one of all of them, which is the one of a person in the present reading a book. Like Helvetica, this was comfort food to me, the suburban kid, back in the early 1980s. The casualness of the pose and the common nature of the picture made me feel like that could be me in the picture but also a bit aspirational, like that’s what “ordinary” life should look like. It’s the same feeling I would get (and still do to a certain extent) watching an old episode of Family Ties.
Letter History. Whereas the pictures in the “History of the English Language” section were something I focused on more than the words, this part of the dictionary was something I obsessed over. Leading off each letter section of the dictionary, it’s a rainbow-striped guide to the evolution of the modern-day letter. We start with ancient Phoenician writing moving through Ancient Greek letters, Ancient Roman lettering, Medieval script, and finally showing the contemporary lettering via our friend Helvetica. Years later, I would take an introduction to Linguistics course in graduate school and I credit my love of these letter histories for my love of that particular course. The way that our language evolves (along with other aspects of culture) is fascinating, and if I have any academic regrets in life, it’s that I didn’t take more courses in topics like linguistics, anthropology, or sociology****.
The Definitions of “Run.” Okay, so now we’re actually into the definitions, and the one word that I would look up in this dictionary and then any other dictionary that I came across (even the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary in the reference section of my public library*****). I was amazed that this word could have 21 definitions (and even more listed in those other dictionaries). English, as a language, is complex to an almost horrifying degree, and I remember that when I see any of my students–especially English language learners–struggle with comprehending the rules of usage. The myriad definitions of “run” is a great snapshot of that.
X has one page. I guess this is more of a fault than a feature? Anyway, I always found it funny that the publishers decided to look at “X” and say, “Ah, screw it” leaving us with five definitions: X (the letter), Xerox, Xmas, X-Ray, and Xylophone. I mean, even “Q” has four pages (although all the words are “q-u” words) and they give “Z” a page and a half.
Zucchini. Speaking of Z, this is the last word in the dictionary. It also has a rather … phallic illustration to accompany it.
I touched upon how the book was important for fostering my curiosity as well as building a foundation for learning. What’s also important is that this book was mine. Not that I was ever discouraged from being curious about the world or writing, but I loved being able to do that on my own. Yes, it’s kind of like giving yourself homework, and it probably contributed to my being such a teacher’s pet for so many years, but I can’t help but feel grateful because of how I’ve never stopped being curious or interested.
* Yes, I was that nerd. Even in graduate school, I found myself skimming chapters that hadn’t been assigned just because I was interested.
** My parents had a dictionary on the shelves that was more “adult” and had an awesome reference section in the back. That and their copy of The People’s Almanac from 1974 probably deserve their own entries.
*** Not surprisingly, I was a high school yearbook adviser for 10 years.
**** There’s a part of me that wonders if I should have gone into sociology and/or media studies instead of toiling in marketing and then becoming a high school English teacher.
***** Holy shit, was I a nerd for that reference section. Books that were so special you could only use them in the library and not check them out? Oh hell yes. And THEN, I could look at the New York Times on microfilm.