Dictionary Rhetorics

This is my great grandmother’s dictionary. Born in Kiev, my great grandmother could speak three languages: Russian, English, and Yiddish. She came to America as a young girl fleeing the pogroms, eventually to live and bicker with her daughter in Yiddish almost 90 years later in a suburban Miami neighborhood, where, unable to live on her own anymore, she slept in a back bedroom. I never saw her pull the dictionary from the shelf, open it, and consult it if she forgot a word’s meaning in English. The dictionary sat on a small bookshelf in the hallway that separated her room from the rest of the house. For whatever reason, I remember seeing the dictionary on that shelf, but I have no recollection of any other book that was on the same shelf. Did she use this dictionary? I’m not sure she, in fact, ever forgot a word’s meaning. I don’t remember her stumbling over English words or suddenly speaking in Russian or mixing the two languages. Her favorite response to “how are you doing, gram?” was “I’m like a cow. I eat and I sleep.” That phrase alone, it seems, suggests language mastery. I don’t know why I have her dictionary.

Scholarship could easily be confused with a dictionary. A dictionary stores language. That is, it stores the words language depends on for expression and which, possibly, we may forget from time to time. Which word do I need for which situation? Which word means this; which word means that? Malcolm X famously copied down each word in the dictionary while incarcerated in order to educate himself. When I learned Hebrew, I did the same thing, copying down words I didn’t know into a notebook and writing their definitions alongside. Literacy, we sometimes think, is connected to the dictionary. Indeed, a popular idea is that to be educated is to own or understand a dictionary. My children, educated in Montessori methods, often were required to do “dictionary work.” Look up a word. Write down its meaning. Voila. Educated. Literate. A dictionary, however, does not store idiom, context, unconventionality, affect, the banal, nor the phatic. It only stores the words. A dictionary is supposedly a tool every writer needs. I own a very large dictionary my grandmother (my great grandmother’s daughter) gave me many years ago. I suppose, when language fails us or eludes us, we are supposed to turn to the dictionary for inspiration. “I need a word that expresses profound disappointment. What could it be? Let me consult the dictionary….”

I never open my dictionary. I think I am an unconventional writer. I write scholarship, but it is not a scholarship that often resembles most other scholars’ work. I have been called a creative nonfiction writer, an essayist, etc. as if these are the wrong ways to write academically. Once, an editor of a journal berated my work for being “too personal” even though the journal he edited had published many canonical essays in its past. My published work often unfolds and does not begin with an argument or claim; I want to walk with the reader through ideas — my ideas, and my ideas often displace or defer other ideas. I suppose that is incorrect to many. Reviewers tend to hate this method. I write essays to a public space because I want to express my thoughts on various ideas (walking the dog, a mortar and pestle, my dining room table, divorce, a Russian/English dictionary), but my essays don’t really resemble the other essays flooded throughout Medium. Even though the essay is taught to thousands of students each year by people who, like me, are professors of rhetoric and composition, our professional journals frown upon publishing these types of essays, as the word “essay” traditionally means. An exploration. An attempt. A movement through ideas. I suppose that the essay as professional writing is too unconventional for most of my colleagues who edit journals. I don’t think of myself as an unconventional person: I’m a father of two kids, I have a dog, I pay a mortgage, I have a job, I eat three times a day, I go to the bathroom, I like to write, etc. I’m not unconventional. Maybe my writing is. But I really think it isn’t.

I never consult the dictionary. This is not because I have a stellar vocabulary. Fuck is probably the most dominant word in my vocabulary. I used to think I dropped more F bombs in department meetings than any other chair in our college. I have no idea if that is actually true. Literacy, we are often told, can be found outside language and outside of words like fuck — in the visual, in clothes, in graffiti, in tattoos, in books, in orality, in media, and via the Web. We have digital literacy, community literacy, food literacy, music literacy, and so on. Even though we believe dictionaries matter, outside of the Malcolm X story and a Montessori pedagogical method of language acquisition, we seldom speak of dictionary literacy. I used to think my kids had such strong vocabularies early in life because they listened to me play NPR and Howard Stern in the car all the time. That, too, might be an example of media literacy. Or it may not. With all the literacies hovering around us at any given moment, you would think we are the most literate culture of all time. Yet, few people really know anything; we just think we do.

Jacques Derrida’s great contribution to critical theory was differance — the concept that words carry multiple meanings (difference) and often, in their expression, defer meaning. What does this situation mean? It can mean many things. Meaning is never stable; it shifts. What is poison; what is a drug, as his most famous example goes. It is both. The pharmakon. Derrida’s idea was highly unconventional for a profession that believed in uncovering meanings via interpretation. A text, they believed, means something. What Derrida proposed was seen as highly blasphemous and yet, for others (such as myself when I was an undergraduate reading Derrida for the first time), highly intriguing. What if nothing means what we think it does? What if meaning is, in fact, unstable? Of course meaning is unstable. Our lives are unstable. Our lives are shaped by meaning. Stability is a myth. Politics, relationships, social media, and other sites of meaning all demonstrate the myth of stability. If anything, with or without language, we become more and more unstable over time. I suppose so.

In this brief unconventional essay that begins with a picture of a dictionary, I also would have shown a picture of my great grandmother’s wedding ring that was given to me many years ago. But my ex-wife lost it in China. It was the ring I gave her when we wed. The meaning of that gesture was supposed to be: we are connected now by family and their histories. The ring was meant to symbolize and convey stability. As we walked down the hallway to the elevator in Shanghai, I noticed it was not on her finger and asked her to go back to the hotel room to retrieve it. She insisted she didn’t have it and had left it in the other city where we were teaching. She was wrong. The ring was still in that Shanghai hotel room. Now it is somewhere in the world, gone from me forever. What does this anecdote mean? What does the gesture of forgetting about a ring a year before a marriage collapses mean? Does it mean anything? I suppose, at its most basic allegorical display, it very much means something. Allegories, as Fredric Jameson, another critical theorist, claimed, are the basis of meaning: this story actually means something else. An allegory conflicts with stable belief that a story is about what it is about. Instead, the allegory supposedly stands for another story. With allegory, instead of just talking about X, I talk about y. Lose a ring in a Shanghai hotel room? That really means….I suppose it means something else.

I don’t know what my great grandmother would say if I told her the ring was lost forever. Like many people at her age — about 90 the last time we spoke — most moments of loss are met with a shrug of the shoulder or a sigh. A kind of deferring — like eating and sleeping and not giving a shit about the rest of the world’s problems. At some point in our lives — at 90 or some other age — there is nothing more we can do but shrug. Things come and go. People come and go. Words come and go. Hello! Good-bye! How are you! What nice weather! Phatic sayings seem to be the most stable of an unstable language. They mean nothing. You can’t find their meanings in a dictionary. They don’t have meaning. Whatever they once signified — a genuine concern for another’s health or well-being — is now forgotten. The phrases simply place hold for passing the time or forgetting what one really wants to say. A type of shrugging the shoulders. I don’t know what to say when I encounter you, so I ask “How are things?” or “I’m glad the semester is almost over!” This is a place holder for not caring. The ring was a place holder for commitment but was then forgotten, like a word one reaches for but cannot find. A dictionary can save a person who forgets a word’s meaning. It can demonstrate that it has been holding on to the word for some time in its bound archive of stored language, language easily accessible via a Montessori lesson or a simple flip of the page. A phatic statement is simply lost meaning. I do. I don’t. I suppose.

What saves a person from a lost ring? What saves anybody from loss, loss from a pandemic, a period of one’s life, a death, a thing. Disenfranchised grief is the term for loss that is not about death or what language considers “legitimate” loss. Disenfranchised grief recognizes the banality of loss. That banality — losing a job, not being in contact with others during a pandemic, getting a divorce, losing a ring — foregrounds what otherwise might be forgotten. There are so many stories one can tell about loss and forgetting, and those stories hover around us in all of our vehicles for literacy, in film, TV, song, Facebook groups, and so on. For just a brief moment as I sat down to write this, I turned to a dictionary on my shelf to consider other forms of loss — from language to material things. Both my grandmother and great grandmother have long passed. They and their memories are now lost to me. The dictionary, for whatever reason, provides an unconventional memory of them both. I could never write about this dictionary for a scholarly journal. Even though I am writing about a dictionary, our heralded tool for literacy acquisition, I can’t imagine a single journal, where we discuss literacy issues, publishing this piece. I suppose I am educated with or without this dictionary. I suppose I am published with or without a published essay about a dictionary. I suppose I am forever “too personal” in my writing. I suppose…what does “I suppose” actually mean anyway…

Professor. Craft beer drinker. Beer trader. Sometimes I tweet more than Ratebeer reviews.