The dawning of a dictionary-lover

By , Melvin Maddocks writes a column regularly for the Monitor's Ideas section.

Some people love dictionaries the way other people love sailboats or shaggy dogs or French vanilla ice cream. Why do the very names of the great publishers - Webster, Cassell, Larousse, Oxford - carry a special excitement and glamour, like Triumph, Alfa-Romeo, Porsche, and Aston-Martin for a sports-car-lover? The dictionary-lover, for all his well-stored words, is the last person to be able to explain. But one thing is sure: The mysterious passion starts early.

A parent can identify a future dictionary-lover by the way the child speaks its first word. Does he or she roll the monosyllable around the tongue like a spoonful of strained plum? Do the eyes shine with an unprecedented gleam of triumph as he or she pronounces - and pronounces again - ''cat'' or ''ball'' or ''car''? Does the urgent finger-pointing with which a noun is connected to its object express a sense of power equal to that expressed in the first step? Then, mother and father, you probably have on your hands a walking dictionary - one of those who will not only learn the native language but seem to invent it.

In the second stage, the dictionary -lover -to -be celebrates pure sound. Words are sung, crooned. Syllables are given pitch to run up and down the scale. Volume rises to a shout and falls to a whisper. The sheer pleasure of language drives the infant to make up ''words'' that sound right, especially when punctuated with wild laughs, like a tenor singing Pagliacci.

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When it comes to the printed word, what separates the dictionary-lover from just another child learning how to read? Phase 3 is marked by a particular affection for the long word, the majestic word, the word with a royal train of syllables behind it - never mind the meaning it's parading toward. At this stage , a child of our acquaintance discovered a promisingly long word on the cover of a reference book: ''thesaurus.'' With what delight the child pointed to the word and pronounced it, touching the faded gold letters on the red binding, as if that were the purpose of print - to put sound at the finger tips. When it was explained that ''thesaurus'' meant ''treasure,'' the child advanced to even deeper delight.

In the fourth stage, the dictionary-lover will, at last, actually acquire a dictionary, and a lifelong habit of examining words, turning them over and over like a mineralogist examining a rock, looking for every subtlety of color, every variation in shape. In thinking about words, in pressing them for their utmost meanings, the dictionary-lover, now no longer a child, will be forced, willy-nilly, to become something of a philosopher.

The fifth stage is often characterized by pride and unjustified confidence. The young tyro believes he or she is in command merely by virtue of articulateness. The perception is so wrong it cannot last long, and must be followed by a chastening letdown.

In Stage 6, the word-lover is ready to throw away all dictionaries. Banging his or her head against that once-beloved thesaurus, the disillu-sioned ex-logophile will cry in frustration to the nearest listener, ''Words! Words!'' - even lamenting like T. S. Eliot's Sweeney: ''I gotta use words when I talk to you.'' It is during Stage 6 that the temporary dictionary-dropout is most likely to take up the flute.

In fact, it is necessary for a dictionary-lover to learn that the world does not belong to words - not even the world of dictionaries.

Dictionaries, as often as not, are now glossaries of terms in chemical engineering and such. In 1970 Erich Burger edited the first dictionary devoted to computers, and the word ''literacy'' has never been the same.

But once a dictionary-lover - back there with that first word - always a dictionary-lover. Gradually dictionary-lovers return to the faith. They believe, again, that the more accurately they name a thing, the better they understand it. When they want an idea, they look for the word for it. Sooner rather than later, all the dictionaries are back on their respected shelf - including one for common words in 26 languages.

Only now, in this seventh stage, the come-of-age dictionary-lover knows what the French poet and philosopher Paul Valery discovered for himself: When the soul, in solitude, really thinks, really feels, it transcends words.

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