Dictionary Pictures Aren’t Superfluous

Remember dictionaries? I’m not talking about those online things we all access now. I’m referring to those big, dusty, old books that took up shelf space in our classrooms and homes.

An 1888 advertisement for Webster’s Unabridged...

An 1888 advertisement for Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They’d wait there on their shelves, standing by for the next chance to go to work as the ultimate arbiters of important matters like spelling, pronunciation, use, and meaning.

Some dictionaries were so revered that they were far too special to sit on a mere shelf. They sat in a special holder that sat on top of the shelves that held all the lesser books.

When you respected a word enough to ensure you were using it correctly, a dictionary was the friend you wanted by your side.

In an argument, it was always good to find that the dictionary agreed with your side. Smart people would concede that they were wrong when confronted with proof from Webster’s or Oxford. Those not smart enough to concede in the face of proof from one of the revered reference books could be convinced with the mere prospect of that hefty book being used as a weapon for truth.

Dictionary Pictures


Capybara (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the great features of the printed dictionaries were the little black and white line drawings that accompanied some definitions. They were simple, but were just the ticket to complete the picture the words painted for the reader. Reading the definition of a capybara gave you a general idea of what one was, but the drawing sealed the knowledge of the nature of the animal.

I miss those old line drawings. It is sad to think of the artists who produced them, sitting around reminiscing about the days when there was a market for pen and ink drawings of things like chipmunks, finials and millstones. I’m not optimistic that the online dictionaries are going seek those folks out and reactivate their pens.

Bringing Pictures To Online Dictionaries

Internet dictionaries lack the pictures that I love. Still, all is not lost.

The greater graphic potential of the internet could allow us all to participate in making online dictionaries better. No, I’m not advocating that we all start doing pen and ink sketches of obscure animals.

What I’m hoping is that we can work something out with these new reference “books” to accept photographic submissions from the public. If you think about it, we all see very clear representations of words. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

The definition of superfluous according to is:

1.   a : exceeding what is sufficient or necessary : extra
     b : not needed : unnecessary
2.  obsolete : marked by wastefulness : extravagant
Does anything say “exceeding what is necessary” and “not needed” like a big group of traffic cones with safety tape around them to keep someone from tripping over them? I think not…

18 Comments on “Dictionary Pictures Aren’t Superfluous”

  1. Anonymous says:

    How do you do it, Oma? Your mind must never shut off. Amazing.

  2. The Hipster says:

    Legal professionals frequently request print dictionaries for specific years, presumably in preparing arguments based on standard definitions from that year. Maybe, though, they just want to know what a capybara looked like in a given year.

    • omawarisan says:

      That would be helpful, especially if there is something in the definition to establish that they used the same capybara as a model each year. Then you could argue on the effect of stress on the animal.

      • I hadn’t considered that. I suppose I imagined the yearly Valentine’s Day rush to the mailbox to see Merriam-Webster’s annual selection. Would it be Kathy Ireland Capybara, Cheryl Tiegs Capybara, or some Swedish or Brazilian Capybara?

  3. Todd Pack says:

    You know, the all-purpose insult, “If you look up (blank) in the dictionary, it has your picture” could lose all meaning in a generation or two, like “You sound like a broken record” or “I’m going to read a newspaper.”

  4. Debbie says:

    Thank you for including that darling line drawing of the capybara. Domer and I saw a bunch of them at a zoo when he was little, and he’s had a soft spot in his heart for them ever since. They’re actually a lot larger than the drawing would have you believe!

  5. robincoyle says:

    I almost gave my college dictionary to Good Will the other day. I thought, “who needs this relic when we have the Internet.” But you know what? I couldn’t do it. It is back on my shelf.

    • omawarisan says:

      Good! Save the drawings!

      If you’re ever tempted again, remember that you cant clobber opponents with the internet. Nor can you drop the internet on a spider.

      • robincoyle says:

        So true. I always clobber my opponents with Mr. Webster. But usually I do it with the caustic words from inside his tome, not with the actual book.

  6. We Found Him Captain! says:

    I once dated a girl that resembled a two legged capybara. after we broke up she hit me with her Webster’s dictionary. It bounced off my head after she dropped it on me it from the balcony above where I was sitting during my study period in the high school auditorium. In today’s world she would have dropped her iPad on my head.
    I’m just joking about her looks. She was beautiful, but had a temper like a deranged capybara.

  7. My Odd Family says:

    With the strides your drawing are making I think this kind of illustrating is something you might want to consider when you retire as a “side.” Since I was never properly taught my ABC’s and my spelling is wobbly (at best) I have never really had a soft spot for a dictionary but using my browser search bar as a spell check is fabulous.

  8. Good one. I have a dictionary so old all the little letter tabs (you know those sort of cut out half moon things so you can find the letter you want) have fallen off.

    It is a good dictionary because it has a picture of a warthog in it. I’ve never found a dictionary (and I check these things) that had drawings in it that didn’t have a drawing of a warthog. Because the definition, which always includes the term “rough, warty excresences on the face” cries out for a picture.

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