It was back in fifth or sixth grade that someone gifted me Merriam-Webster’s Vest Pocket Dictionary, a blue, smallish reference book of very few words, marginal utility, and if memory serves, much excitement. It was such a desirable book that, even though my mother purged it from my shelves in the Great Garage Sale of 1980, I was able to pick up a replacement used copy about a decade ago.
What drew me to this work wasn’t its depth of content. Most of the definitions top out at five or six words. It certainly wasn’t the number of entries since even with the elderly-offending font, its 370 pages leave little room for variety. (The X, Y, and Z sections together utilize all of two-and-a-half pages.) And it definitely wasn’t the pedagogical import, since I doubt I looked up more than one hundred words total while it was in my possession.
What made it a significant book can be summed up in one short definition.
grown-up \’grôn‚əp\ n: adult —grown-up adj
This small dictionary wasn’t one of those grand library editions, nor was it a childish “beginner’s” dictionary common for the younger set. This was a dictionary that mimicked the look and feel of a big people’s dictionary—each entry even included one of those incomprehensible pronunciation guides—but was still small enough to travel around with a juvenile. This book declared to an elementary school student: “You are grown up, and deserve grown-up things.”
With the advent of dictionary apps and Wikipedia, small reference books like this don’t carry the same emotional charge as they did decades ago. I asked my teenage son what he thought of the book, and his first response was, “It’s bigger than my phone.” Sigh. Kids today, once I chase them off my lawn, have ready electronic access to the wealth of human knowledge. Perhaps that makes them more grown-up than I was at that age. Yet I wonder if putting such power in their hands so early removes opportunities for simple, joyful discovery made possible through things like vest-pocket dictionaries.
[Image Credits: The Men’s Warehouse]