Dictionary Days

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Dictionary Days is best understood in the context of the author’s life history. Born in Mexico of Jewish parents, Ilan Stavans nurtured in his youth a love for Yiddish and Hebrew as well as his native Spanish. Only in his adulthood did he come to appreciate the English language. In his autobiography, On Borrowed Words (2001), Stavans described this polyglot background and reflected on his own linguistic development. In Dictionary Days he places this multilingualism in the context of his great passion for words and his fascination with dictionaries of all sorts.

In the “Acknowledgements” in Dictionary Days, Stavans explains how this book came to be. After an academic symposium where he read a paper (which came to be the chapter called “Ink, Inc.” in this book), Stavans was invited to write a book on words and his love of dictionaries. While initially apprehensive about such an undertaking, Stavans eventually agreed to this proposal; Dictionary Days is the result.

The essays in Dictionary Days are not just academic and theoretical. They are often also personal and autobiographical. In “Fictionary,” Stavans reflects on his love of the word game of that name and explains his adolescent experiences as a writer. As he examines the meaning of the word “love” in the essay “Invention of Love,” he tells the sad story of his childhood dog Coki, who abandoned his family. In “Gladys,” he describes the efforts of an illegal immigrant to bring her daughter across the U.S. border. This tale of coyotes (Mexican border guides) and linguistic excitement provides a context for Stavans to reflect on his own crossing from Mexico into the United States. In “Gladys” he also moves from the linguistic problems of this Salvadoran immigrant to attempts to create a universal language such as Esperanto, as well Stavans’s own academic interest in Spanglish and other hybrid languages.

Stavans uses his own name in “Keeping My Name” to reflect on the meaning of monikers and identity. In “Land of Lost Words,” the author transforms memories of his father’s performance in a Mexican production of Singin’ in the Rain into a stream-of-consciousness consideration of the multilingual layers of the production; Stavans identifies with his father in his Spanish performance of an English-language work. As a Mexican Jew writing in English, he calls himself a “tongue snatcher,” a stealer of other people’s words and languages, and reflects on his own relationship with Yiddish and the history of that language.

Stavans also takes his readers on a wide-ranging linguistic and geographic journey. He browses in an English-Arabic dictionary and observes some of the Americanisms in the Arabic language. He dreams about examining books in a Near Eastern market and suddenly finds himself in a dreamlike scene of trading with a Navajo girl in Arizona. He quotes a variety of authorities on dictionaries, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, W. H. Auden, and Samuel Johnson.

Lovers of words will enjoy the way in which definitions of words are woven into these essays. Some of the words that have caught Stavans’s attention include “antipodes” and “quixotic.” He talks about “nonce” (actually “nonsense”) words such as “bardlatry” as well as archaic or “relic” words such as “maraud,” “rodomontade,” “terpsichorean,” and “gaberlunzie.” He also examines Yiddish words such as “dybbuk” and “Yiddishkeit” and Spanish words such as “rascuachismo.”

Stavans demonstrates the challenges of definition by examining such words as “reading,” “impossible,” and “death.” In “Invention of Love,” he examines definitions of “love” in various language dictionaries. He notes how different cultural attitudes result in very different approaches to that word. While the German definition is based more on sacrifice and dedication, Italians emphasize affection. In the process he also considers the challenges of interlingual communication and the problems of mistranslation. For example, in Spanish the same word can be used to describe someone who is either “angry” or “upset.” In “Keeping My Name” he uses dictionary definitions to contrast Spanish and English concepts of “honor.” In “Gladys” he observes the communication problems of tourism and hypothesizes a dictionary of tourism dealing with linguistic gaffes such as the phrase “to drink a note” caused by the fact that the Spanish verb tomar means both “to take” and “to drink.”

The subject of...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 14 (March 15, 2005): 1252.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 3 (February 1, 2005): 171-172.

Library Journal 130, no. 8 (May 1, 2005): 85.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 11 (March 14, 2005): 57.