MUSINGS A good dictionary goes beyond defining words, it chronicles an age and a culture

A s we wearily wiped down our damp, musty books the other day, we looked at them long and hard to judge whether some might deserve to be passed on. Our copy of The Great Lifco Dictionary (English-English-Tamil) was unwieldy as a brick. But it renewed its lease the minute my husband read out, “One viss equals one kilo 400 grams… the metric system of weights and measures has come officially into effect from 1-10-1958... and in a few years' time will become effective all over India.” The chart also gave metric equivalents for the palam, maund and candy. Reading further, I found there were 20 maunds in a candy, 10 chains in a furlong, 4 sq roods in an acre.

A good dictionary is also a history. This volume (1960, 1500 pages, Rs. 7.25, bought from Moore Market in Madras) seems to contain the history of my husband's childhood. It has his father's signatures (one of them forged) and his sisters' names scrawled on various preliminary pages. His own name is written in his mother's hand on what remains of the cover. Her name appears on page 809.

Shreds of green cloth cling to the spine. It was not the family's first dictionary. English and Tamil dictionaries belonging to both grandfathers, with their spiky steel-pen signatures, were consulted, bandaged as required, and cherished.

The preliminary pages of this Lifco include a prayer, scriptural quotations, and a guide to The Dictionary Habit. The definitions, lucidly phrased in readable type, are interspersed with quotations from Pliny and Johnson.

The end matter is encyclopaedic. It includes a humble salutation to the teaching profession (mostly lamenting declining pay). It also has Golden Advice on how to be a good student, including “Use your leisure wisely” and “Beware that a spoken word cannot be erased!” and instructions for cleaning of teeth and daily bathing. The advisers assure us that “We remain, Friends, Always interested in your welfare & progress, The Little Flower Co., Madras-17.”

A dictionary of biography is added (it leaves out both Johnson and Webster). There are proofreading marks, guidelines for drafting a letter, and mathematical formulae. There are rich language guides explaining figures of speech, idioms, appropriate prepositions and adverbs, words often mis-spelt and mistaken, and distinctions in word usage, including the difference between “ancient” and “antiquated”. Amazingly, there are only two pages of errata.

In the age of online dictionaries, written by Google knows whom, I and many of my friends rely on the established names: the OED, Webster's, Chambers, Longman, Macmillan and Collins Robert. We stroll the columns with our fingertips, we soak in the scenery of parergon, pareu, parfleche, pargana, parget and parhelion on our way to our nearly forgotten destination of parietal.

On our shelves, along with the presiding New Oxford Dictionary of English, we will probably always house a sizeable cabinet of meaningful books, whether inherited, adopted, bandaged, new and revised, or ancient and antiquated.