One of my several disabilities is being verbally challenged. I, often, require the assistance of a dictionary to get the correct meaning and spelling of words. I didn’t know looking a word up in a dictionary would be such a big deal.
Recently, I heard a speaker using the word chutzpah and wanted to check its spelling and meaning. I distinctly remembered the guy pronouncing it as ‘hutspa and, therefore, wanted to go to page marked H. I placed my finger in the middle, opened the voluminous book and stared at a page headed by the word question mark.
Now, the first doubt crept up whether to go to left or right. Where does H stand in relation to Q, before or after it? I chanted the alphabets I learned, by rote, in preschool days. While learning XYZs, one forgets his ABCs as per the dictum. I have hardly learned the XYZs but certainly forgot my ABCs. By trial and error, I turned the dictionary pages, thin for reasons I never understood, back and forth and, after considerable difficulty, landed up in the page for H. Unfortunately, there were several pages under H, and I had to recite alphabets again to come to the page starting with letters HU. After scanning all the words in those pages, I was convinced either I got it all wrong, or the speaker had not pronounced the word properly.
Thinking it could be kutspa, I searched the pages under KU but came a cropper again. When the word eluded, I started scratching my head, again one of my several childhood habits that continue to date, and changed my search for the word cutspa. I learned many things about cats and spas but failed to make any progress in my quest.
Unfortunately, my brother-in-law, a self acclaimed ‘know all’ entered the scene. I didn’t like his cavalier intrusion when I was in stress and distress. Now, a brother-in-law in India is a strange figure. He is considered as a moron of the highest order, viewed with disdain and contempt and given a wide berth when his sister is not around but treated with more than normal courtesy otherwise. This courtesy is essential to maintain peace and tranquility at the home front. By the way, BILs, short for brother-in-laws, are loud mouths without exception, in India. I have a sister, and I am sure her husband would have a similar opinion about me.
Watching my travails, my BIL asked me, “You look a little wound up. Need any help?” Although he asked in earnest, I would have brushed him off, but my wife came in with a pot of coffee.
He got the drift of my problem, after what seemed an eternity, and came up with his counsel.
“You’ve the following options,” he said, speaking as if he were the cabinet secretary advising the prime minister.
(a) To make your fingers thin and taper them to facilitate turning pages with ease
(b) To place a sponge with water to moisten your fingers frequently
(c) To attach tags marked with alphabets on the side of the dictionary pages
(d) To place a board giving the alphabets, in bold letters, in their alphabetical order, in front of my workstation.
(e) To change the dictionary and get one with thick pages
(f) To give up writing to avoid the trouble.
Tapering my fingers involved bloodshed and didn’t appeal to me. Buying a new dictionary involved additional expenses. I had not received any payment for whatever I wrote. Instead, I pay an annual subscription to write on this site, and I pay dollars to readers to read and endure the stuff I write. I can get additional funds from my wife only as a trade off for cutting down on my evening elixir.
I had some doubt, a faint sliver of doubt, my BIL had a minute speck of wisdom tucked somewhere in the labyrinths of his mysterious brain. But the options he had given dispelled my doubt forever. I looked around to ensure my wife was not in hearing distance and told him what to do with his wisdom. He got the drift and retreated but not before saying, “I thought I would get a wow from you.” What a nerve!
I heaved a sigh of relief and continued with my quest and tried the online dictionary only to find myself in a catch-22 situation. I couldn’t get the meaning unless I typed the correct spelling. Had I known the spelling, I wouldn’t have gone to the online dictionary. I have been trying for the correct spelling and meaning of the word chutzpah for two weeks with no appreciable success.
My troubles with OED are of a different kind. Once I wanted to check the usage of a phrase, ‘to take a heavy toll’. I thought the operative word was heavy and navigated my way to the page under H. When the phrase in bold letters stared at me, I heaved a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, my relief was short lived, for I found an arrow directing me to go to the word toll.
The thingamajig of spelling and pronunciation of English words baffles many people, especially ESL types.
Checking a point in grammar is no less a problem. Brought up in Wren & Martin grammar in school, I had to switch to Simon & Schuster after joining this site. Since the layout of this book is totally different from what I was used to, I first check the index and find a word, say, preposition. I find ten to fifteen pages marked against the word and refer to all the pages. After reading all the pages, I get more confused than when I started. Fortunately for me, the grammar book has thick pages and doesn’t call for tapering of fingers. This is a plus point for American grammar, but why can’t all rules for use of preposition be put in one place?
Style and syntax is a different cup of tea. The Chicago manual of Style, a heavy tome, has a baffling way of presentation. It has sections marked 7.6.144 and a cross reference to 8.7.62 like law books. The index gives four or five pages for any word, and it takes almost an hour to find out how to write, say, compulsive dictionary disorder.
I am yet to figure out how to spell chutzpah and what it means. Any help would be highly appreciated.