When I was in graduate school, my roommate’s father came to visit. We were in the middle of moving out of a house that we had been renting. As we cleaned it up, packing boxes and mopping the floors, he sat on a bar stool and read entries from a dictionary out loud. At the time, I found the behavior inexplicable. Just another part of being a goofy old guy And yet he was clearly fascinated by what he was finding and that made us interested as well.
As so often happens in my life, now I understand. At some point, I began using the dictionary as more than a spell-checker, and I found it contained amazing information. Meanings. Etymologies. Odd juxtapositions. And, as the poet said, “way leads on to way.” One word leads to another. Now, I sometimes find myself doing the same thing my friend’s father did, occasionally looking up a word and then looking up another word and then randomly browsing the dictionary and even reading it out loud to others (usually my poor captive students). There is a pleasure in learning what words mean, and used to mean, and sharing the information. A dictionary is like a Field Guide to Language.
Someone once told me that he couldn’t write poetry because he didn’t have a big enough vocabulary. He didn’t have the words. I explained that I didn’t have the words either, but the poems teach them to me. I learn them as I need them.
Writing isn’t always an expression of language, sometimes it’s an exploration of language. You discover the words as you go.