Mr. Webster

Now dictionaries in school are suspect? Mr. Webster is snoring in his grave.

A gift from my husband’s late father is one of his most prized possessions. We don’t move it around much because it’s as heavy as a cinderblock. “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged” is the title. “Make of this book a trusted friend for life,” the inscription says.

My father-in-law understood the value of words as the editor of a small town newspaper. He wanted to make certain that his son did as well. My father-in-law, if he were still alive, would be astounded that dictionaries, along with other banned books, are now suspect.

They are, however, present in some areas. The Sarasota County School District in Florida is refusing to accept dictionaries until a new state law giving parents more control over classroom books is clarified. The dictionaries were donated by the Venice, Florida Rotary Club, as they have done for the past 15 years.

For the first time, schools are unable to accept them until they obtain permission from a certified education media specialist – a position that has been approved but has yet to be filled. The dictionaries can then be used in the classroom. Meanwhile, they collect dust on the shelves.

Most of us are aware of the textbook battles taking place in schools, but dictionaries should not be included. We’re afraid of books and words now?

Noah Webster is probably rolling in his grave.

If you grew up with dictionaries in your house, either stacked on a table or lined up on a shelf, you’ve probably heard the phrase “look it up.”

If I asked my father how to spell a word, he’d always say that phrase. Before you could hold all of the world’s knowledge in the palm of your hand, you had to do the work of finding the word, hoping you spelled it correctly, and then reading the meaning.

Because there was sometimes more than one meaning, you learned more than you wanted to know. That, however, is never a bad thing.

Graduation gifts in the 1960s might have included a sturdy, solid dictionary to take to college, where it would presumably sit on the tiny dorm desk we were each assigned, waiting to help with term papers. Pocket dictionaries, which slid into a purse or jacket pocket, were also available. They’re now as obsolete as a rotary dial phone, but they used to be useful.

Most of us learned about dictionaries in elementary school. My fifth-grade teacher kept a large and heavy dictionary on the back table. We could sit around the table after we finished our seat work and make a list of words that were new to us. They might call it vocabulary building now.

Nobody could stop the boys from looking up titillating words like “buttocks,” “bosom,” or the name of another body part. They liked to leave the pages open so that the bold words could be seen by the girls. When we went to the school library, they stared at the photos of topless women and pulled “National Geographic” off the shelves to snicker at.

As far as I know, their actions did not ruin their lives. Nobody forbade the use of “National Geographic” or the worn dictionary at the back of the classroom. Nobody slapped the students on the wrist. Nobody ripped pages out of the dictionary.

We are all aware that words have tremendous power. That is why campaign advertisements are so effective. However, we must remember that students have a right to learn at least some of the 470,000 words in our rich English language, with more being added every year.

Denying them this privilege is the most heinous form of censorship.

I believe everyone understands what that means, but if Sarasota County School District officials are unsure, I hope they find a dictionary and look it up.