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May 19, 1978

A Dithyramb to the Dictionary

JAMA. 1978;239(20):2159. doi:10.1001/jama.1978.03280470071031

No muse of the dictionary resided on Parnassus. No poet dedicated an ode to a dictionary. No chorus chanted paeans to a lexicographer. "I am not so lost in lexicography," wrote Dr Samuel Johnson in the preface to his Dictionary, "as to forget that words are the daughters of earth and that things are the sons of heaven." To this disparagement Sir William Osler added: "After all, there is no such literature as a dictionary."

Why, then, does the pulse quicken when a new dictionary or a new edition of an old dictionary lands on the desk? Why does the hand reach for it and, on opening to a random page, usher the eye onto a browsing spree? Apparently, a dictionary is more than a repository of information. We may praise its comprehensiveness, up-to-dateness, and accuracy, but what we enjoy most are its hidden pleasures.

We may take pleasure in