My husband and I keep a dictionary in the car. We carefully selected an oversize paperback, figuring it would be more complete and have larger print than the smaller trade editions. It just fits in the passenger-door pocket beside the paper napkin collection. That it is an American Heritage Dictionary, my husband's favorite, is frosting on the cake, at least to him. Since the purchase, we have racked up serious mileage in vocabulary and its vicissitudes.
Usually Don drives, and I find the word or words. Stretches along the Massachusetts Turnpike (or Mass Pike) had me reading aloud the distinction between marsh ("a grassy or weedy wetland") and swamp ("a wetland, esp. one that is forested and seasonally flooded"). How could we not consider wetland? ("A lowland area, as a marsh, that is saturated with moisture.")
In homage to the Fenway in Boston I looked up fen ("low swampy land; bog"). All right, on to bog ("an area of soft, naturally waterlogged ground").
Something about bog led Don to ask for heath (second definition, "a tract of uncultivated open land covered with low shrubs; moor"). You know what happened upon finding moor – a British picture popped in my head of a dark figure in a billowing cloak running silhouetted against the night sky. (The definition: "a broad area of open, often boggy land, usu. covered with low shrubs.")
While bog sent my husband to heath, it sent me to peat ("partially carbonized vegetable matter, usu. mosses, found in bogs and used as fertilizer and fuel"). When we passed the marsh/swamp/wetland/fen/bog – take your dictionary pick – and exited to Interstate 84, I wondered why we didn't think of morass ("1. an area of low-lying, soggy ground. 2. a difficult, perplexing, or overwhelming situation").
Soon we were in Connecticut, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "a state of the NE US. Cap. Hartford. Pop. 3,295,669" (the exact 2000 population I guess). Or, as Don and I define it, "the state where Alice grew up."
Dictionary definitions do have their limits.
Some words, such as intervale, are not in our dog-eared travel companion. Nor are all definitions complete. Then, too, some are complete – but one of us thinks they aren't.
Take bole, for instance. In the byways of Bow, N.H., seeing a regal specimen two feet across and nearly as high as the telephone wires, worn by age to a woody shine, I exclaimed, "Look at that bole!"
Don asked, "What's a bole?" ("A tree trunk.")
I thought a bole was a dead but still-standing tree trunk. With my long-held opinion challenged, I pulled out our large American Heritage Dictionary (2006) at home and looked up bole ("a tree trunk").
Apparently I must accept the fact that the trunk of any tree – alive, dead, standing, leaning, or lying down – is a bole. I do agree with the home dictionary on intervale ("a tract of low-lying land, especially along a river"). It explains those street signs in the river valley on New Hampshire Route 101 West, below Temple Mountain and Pack Monadnock.
Our looking-up habit continually expands. More than once, Don has pulled up to the local Wendy's drive-through window with me reading out of the dictionary. Sometimes I read it (silently) while Don dashes into a store.
But recently I finally went solo, full force. At a red light in Townsend, Mass., I unbuckled my seat belt so I could grab the dictionary and thumbed for the word until the light changed. Nearly an hour later, when I pulled off at the Charlton Plaza on the Mass Pike, I finished the search. Priorities properly ordered, I went in for my Auntie Anne's cinnamon and sugar pretzel.
Don and I wonder whether to replace our faithful travel veteran with one that is not pre-Google in its listings. Somewhere north of Worcester, Mass., we discovered that an upgrade is not out of the question. Don asked for a word that I thought would be better looked up in an encyclopedia. Before I could say so, he said, "Maybe we should have a little laptop in the car with an encyclopedia on it!" And a dictionary?
We learned during a recent Red Sox game how hopelessly ingrained our word mileage habit is. Twice in three innings of chatting about the trade of pitcher Kason Gabbard to acquire reliever Eric Gagne, TV announcers used the word hubris. "What does that mean?" Don asked.
"I don't know," I answered. "I think it means being totally wrapped up in yourself" (I was actually thinking of narcissistic), "or totally involved in materialism or sensualism, or something like that. It's one of those words I can never remember the meaning of."
Don, sitting 15 feet away from the big home dictionary, replied, "If we were in the car, we could look it up."
(Hubris, car dictionary: "overbearing pride; arrogance.")