DEAR READER: Dictionaries help us understand outside world

Friday, March 9, 2012 | 1:28 p.m. CST; updated 10:47 p.m. CST, Saturday, March 10, 2012

COLUMBIA — Sunday was National Grammar Day, and the online world of grammar nerds quickly filled with posts, many of them dead serious about the importance of observing such a high-brow event.

My favorite is a post from the blogsite Technorati and its oxymoronic headline: Ain't no reason not to celebrate — It's National Grammar Day.

Treasured dictionarys and other word usage books

Here's a partial list of the dictionaries and word usage books collected by the book club:

"World Book Encyclopedia-Dictionary," two volumes, A-K and L-Z

"The American College Dictionary," Random House

"Dorland's Illustrated 23rd Edition Medical Dictionary"

"The Random House English Language Dictionary," 2nd edition, unabridged

"Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary"

"Collin's Spanish-English Dictionary"

"Pictorial Webster's: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities," compiled by John M. Carrera

"New York Times Crossword Puzzle Dictionary," 3rd edition

"A Treasury for Word Lovers," by Morton S. Freeman

"Dickson's Word Treasury: A Connoisseur's Collection of Old and New, Weird and Wonderful, Useful and Outlandish Words," by Paul Dickson

"New World Dictionary of the American Language," 2nd edition, deluxe color edition

"The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations," 3rd edition

"The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language" 

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Why not have a little fun?

That attitude fits the ideal of the Missourian's Show Me the Errors contest. We're serious about being correct, but, like any other passion, we also enjoy the interplay with our readers and colleagues.

In February, 27 participants submitted 62 corrections in the contest. Jim Terry, with 35 submissions, was the winner for highest number of submissions, and he also won the monthly drawing to determine the winner of the prizes.

Jim, a consistent participant and winner, wrote in an email that he has enough Missourian T-shirts and asked that we pass along the prizes to the second-place winner. The prizes are a copy of "The Great Typo Hunt" and a Missourian T-shirt. Jim's generosity means Tipper Keener should soon be sporting a new shirt.

The submitted corrections pointed out a variety of errors. Spacing between words was frequently cited. It's a result of how our editing system works, but nonetheless, there's no excuse. We know about it and know we need to be more diligent in checking for those oddities.

There also seemed to be an aversion to the correct use of possessive apostrophes. It's another area we need to zero in on. 

More troubling than mechanical and punctuation errors, of course, are factual errors. Incorrect identifications, misrepresentations of a speaker's intentions and omissions of background information that clarifies a situation make us cringe.

The contest continues, so please join us in correcting errors at To submit a correction, just click on the first box at the bottom of each article and let us know about the error. We'll take it from there.

Although we didn't specifically acknowledge National Grammar Day or Show Me the Errors, I suspect the members of my book club would be superior candidates to participate in both. At our Tuesday night meeting, we paid homage to words when we met and compared our favorite dictionaries.

The value of such word collections was tied primarily to correct usage and the breadth of information, of course, but sentiment also played a role.

A couple members brought along dictionaries that were high school graduation gifts or purchased for their forays from home to college. A prized medical dictionary also was displayed.

We ogled the illustrations and commented on their elegance. We compared drawings and photographs of elephants. Most include both the African and Asian varieties. As Nancy Finke said, the illustrations shape "our concept of what they look like."

The draw of illustrations is so strong that Ann McGinity confessed she often goes to doctor's appointments a half hour early so she can peruse a collection of books titled "How things work."

Nancy wowed us with the news that she worked for World Book Encyclopedia-Dictionaries in the late 1960s. Among other duties, she researched answers to letters from people pointing out perceived errors in the book. "The word 'mistake' was never used," she said. Instead, any such perceptions were referred to as "discrepancies."

The words, thousands and thousands of them, we admitted, hold us in thrall, adding little gems to our vocabularies.

For example, Cathy Huckins related learning the word "lek" during a recent trip to Central America. She and her husband were advised by other tourists and guides that to see hummingbirds, they needed to find a lek. By chance, they did and were rewarded with a view of a large gathering of the glittering birds as they flitted through the air.

Lek, though, has multiple definitions. In Cathy's experience, it means a gathering of male hummingbirds singing to attract females. It's also a river in the Netherlands and an Albanian coin.

After reading a definition that describe the meaning as "in the animal kingdom, where males gather in mating season," Cathy quipped: "Sounds like a bar."

I can't quite imagine a group of college-age men making plans to form a lek on a Saturday night, but I do hope that all life-long learners treasure their dictionaries and the riches they offer.   

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at She's looking forward to attending the American Copy Editors Society's annual conference in April. 

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