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JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: Are you still in love with your dictionary?

John Eggers

Do you remember when you first fell in love with your dictionary? Most of us did at one time or another. For some of us, this magical moment didn't happen until we got to college and then one day we were assigned to write a paper and in our research we came across an unknown word like "plethora." We opened our dictionary to find that it meant "a large amount of something" and at that moment we fell in love. In the background we heard Sinatra singing "Strangers in the Night." We realized we just fell in love with a stranger. Well, it kind of went like that.

Dictionaries are probably the most unromantic thing on the planet next to brussel sprouts. How could a person possibly fall in love with a dictionary? My mother fell in love with her crossword puzzle dictionary that my wife gave to her many years ago. On the inside she had written, "You don't realize how much pleasure this has brought me." Any one who does crossword puzzles has fallen head over heels for dictionaries.

I never carried many books to my college dorm room at Luther College but one book I did have was a dictionary. I really wasn't in love with it at that time. I just felt it might come in handy to prop up my desk or to use as a bookend. I wanted to be proactive and impress my roommates. I didn't want to appear to be a "nerd" although that term was not used at the time. Not until I began to write in college, which was probably the first day that I realized my dictionary would become my soulmate.

Here's a good question. Has the computer and your iPhone made the dictionary obsolete? After all you can just ask your iPhone what a word means and you have the answer faster than if you took time to look it up in the dictionary. Right?

I suppose we could say the same thing about learning math functions. How much is 23 times 7? I just asked my iPhone and I got the answer (161) in less than three seconds. Do we still need history taught? When was the Panama Canal opened? The answer, Aug. 15, 1914. My iPhone told me. Do we need to learn about nutrition? Why is milk good for you? The answer is that it contains calcium, which prevents osteoporosis. That took about four seconds.

So, why do we need a dictionary other than to use it as a bookend? Maybe your love life is just fine without a dictionary.

There is something special that happens when you fall in love with a dictionary that is very much like falling in love with a person. A great feature about falling in love is the search for that special person. Right? We all have romantic stories to tell.

The search is one of the best things about using a dictionary. Why? You have to use your brain to find the word you are looking for. Your brain doesn't have to work too hard to ask your iPhone how to spell a word or multiply a couple of big numbers. When you hunt and find the true meaning of a word by using a dictionary, your brain says "thank you" for using me. At that moment your brain is telling you, "You know we really need to continue this relationship." It feels good.

Here's a good example of what I am talking about. Let's say you just used the word "podium" to refer to someone who is behind a tall wooden stand and speaking on the microphone. You say, "I can't really see him because the podium is in the way." The person next to you says, "You mean the lectern is in the way." You don't say anything but you didn't like the fact that the person corrected you.

At home you look up "podium" in the dictionary and you learn that a podium is a raised platform and then you look up "lectern" and you learn that a lectern is something that you rest a book or papers on. A lectern is a stand that might sit on a podium. A podium is something the Olympic athletes stand on or that a preacher stands on to give a sermon. The preacher will rest the Bible not on a podium but on a lectern.

All of a sudden you have a special relationship with your dictionary. You used your brain to hunt for the answer. You are now smarter for looking than you were if you had just asked your phone or computer to look for the answer, which in some ways it's kind of like cheating your brain. You know the old saying, "If you don't use your brain you will lose it."

Teachers want students to go through the process when solving a math problem. They want you to know how to find the answer. They want students to use their brains. Calculators are fine if you first learn the process.

Bemidji's Sunrise Rotary has been giving away hundreds of dictionaries every year for 11 years to all third graders in Bemidji regardless of what school they attend. For most of those students, this is their very first dictionary, their very first love affair. Members hope this love affair will continue throughout their life. If you know a third grader, ask him or her about their new dictionary.

When Noah Webster published his first dictionary in 1806 he didn't realize he had created a love machine. "Love: a strong affection for another." Thanks, Noah, we love you, too.

Riddle: What is the longest word in the dictionary? "Smile" because it has a mile in it. When you think about having a love affair with a dictionary, don't you just have to smile?

100 percent graduation rate

A local movement is underway to ensure the area has a 100 percent high school graduation rate. Here's some tips on how you can help us achieve that goal:

1. Dig out your high school diploma to show your kids or grandkids and say a few things about it. If you are a teacher, hang your diploma on the wall.

2. If you are a teacher, ask yourself "What did I do to help my kids graduate today?"