Once again I'm caught in Webster's web

Ever since I can remember, I have loved dictionaries. Even as a kindergartner, I recall poring over the big Random House my parents kept on an end table in the living room. I knew that what I was looking at were words, lots of them, but at the time all I could do was count letters. I would make a sort of safari out of trying to find the longest words I could. When, in the early grades, I learned to read, the dictionary began to reveal its secrets to me. It was, from the start, nirvana.

Despite the availability of online dictionaries and CD-ROMS with more words than one thought existed, I prefer bound dictionaries. Not because I am a Luddite, and not because I am nostalgic. Rather, there's a greater sense of adventure when paging through a dictionary in search of a particular spelling or definition: One never knows when one will be ambushed by another word that catches the eye, a word that may turn out to be far more interesting than the word one was looking for in the first place.

This was the case recently when I was looking up "carom," to see exactly how it fit in with "careen" and "career." But en route to "carom" I was sideswiped by a word that took me by storm and which I never knew existed: "carking." What a wonderful word! It means worrisome or anxious.

By the time I finished ogling the word and rolling it around on my tongue like a bonbon, I had completely forgotten that I was looking for "carom." No matter. I considered "carking" to be a far better payoff for my efforts. Let's face it, I cark far more often than I carom. (My 18-year-old son will attest to this.)

Ah, the dictionary. Few other books yield as much bang for the buck. Where else can one find not only the correct spelling of a word, but its pronunciation and origin as well as examples of correct usage? Thanks to the dictionary, I am master of the differences between "that" and "which," "farther" and "further," "lay" and "lie." Of course, few people are so discriminating today, but so what? Few people I know eat Icelandic dried fish, but I can't get enough of it.

There are times when I could use a dictionary but almost hesitate to open one. The reason? I get mired. It's those words that enter, unannounced, from stages left and right (the "carking" effect). The result? What should have been a quick jaunt to the word I wanted turns out to be a leisurely hour (or more) of reading, reading, reading; turning the dictionary into one of those magician's tricks where one pulls on a pocket hanky and finds oneself extracting an unending chain of hankies, one after the other.

Such expeditions led me, years ago, to keep a handwritten log of all the interesting words I'd found in the dictionary that had made themselves known to me when I was en route to other words. Here are five of my favorites:

Bumbershoot: slang for an umbrella.

Vug: a cavity in a rock that is often lined with crystals. (Years ago, on a geology field trip, I actually used this word, crying out, "Oh, my gosh! A vug!")

Sprag: a piece of wood or other object placed behind the wheel(s) of a vehicle to keep it from rolling. (As someone who changes his own oil in the driveway, I make ready use of the sprag.)

Snickersnee: (A wonderful word!) This is a long, swordlike knife, but the journalist H.L. Mencken - king of the literary hyperbole - used it to casually describe what a barber had in hand as he approached him for a shave.

Farrago: a confused mixture, hodgepodge, or medley. Anyone who has ever attended a meeting at a university will grasp this meaning immediately. Outsiders assume that such gatherings must be donnish (stuffily academic), where in actuality they are characterized by maundering (aimless or incoherent talk).

My high school-age son, while doing a reading assignment, recently approached me with the question, "What does 'perambulate' mean?" I knew the answer, but wanted to show him, by example, how to help himself.

As I paged toward the desired word in the dictionary, I got upended by the charming, archaic "peradventure." "Now here's an interesting word," I told him as I read out its definition, after which I fell victim, in swift succession, to "pepperwort," "pentosan," and "pepo." When I looked up, my son was gone. And before I had a chance to tell him about "peplum"!

Well, I hope I didn't frustrate him; I was only indulging in a bit of persiflage*.

* good-natured banter

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