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Not Sure? Just Look It Up!

by Mary Jo Shannon

“I know what a raccoon is! I don’t need to look it up in the dictionary!” my son Harry shouted, pounding on the family room table where he was doing his homework. He pushed the dictionary with such force that it almost slid off the table. Crumpling a sheet of notebook paper, he tossed it into the wastepaper basket.

Harry was a third-grader in 1965 and a good student. It was unlike him to complain about homework. This time Elaine Reynolds, his no-nonsense teacher, had assigned the students in his group a series of words to look up in the dictionary. Harry considered the assignment busy work.

“Stop wasting time and look up the word,” his father replied, placing the dictionary before our son. “You may learn something new.”

Grudgingly, Harry flipped the pages until he located the word “raccoon,” then exclaimed, “This doesn’t make sense — ‘A nocturnal, omnivorous mammal!’ What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know how to find out,” his father said. “Look the words up.”

After much effort, Harry learned that “omnivorous” meant eating a variety of foods, including small animals and fruits; “nocturnal” meant being active at night; and “mammal” meant a warm-blooded animal with hair, which produces milk to feed the young. Fortunately, the remainder of his word list did not require such lengthy study. Harry calmed down and finished his homework

The next day when he returned home from school, he reported with pride what happened. The teacher asked if he could define “raccoon.”

“Yes,” he said, “it’s an omnivorous nocturnal mammal.”

“Do you know what that means?” she responded, and he spouted the meaning of each big word as he had discovered it in the dictionary. The praise Mrs. Reynolds bestowed on him for learning so many multisyllabic words opened a new realm of learning for him. From that day forward Harry and the dictionary were best of friends.

A passion for books – including reference books – has been a hallmark of our family ever since our three children were old enough to read. “Volume A” of the World Book falls open to the section devoted to the United States Army. Mending tape and smudges are evidence of repeated contact as John studied the grade insignia for officers and enlisted men during the phase of his obsession with the military. Likewise, the “H” volume, with its transparent overlays labeling the skeletal, muscular and internal organs systems of the human body — a testimony to those days when John’s attention shifted to other interests.

Many a dinner-time argument has been settled by consulting the dictionary or a volume of the World Book. Even my travel journal proved to be a useful resource, enabling us to settle our differences peaceably when my husband and I disagreed about some detail of one of our trips.

Years after our daughter married, her husband confessed that the first time he had dinner with us —  before he and Kathy were engaged — he wondered what kind of family he might be getting into. Before the meal was over reference books were consulted twice. We’re glad Skip didn’t let our eccentricity prevent him from joining our family.

Reference books don’t get as much attention nowadays; it’s so easy to “google” something to find the answer to almost any question. Besides providing preliminary research for serious writing projects, the internet also helps settle trivia questions such as who starred in a particular movie, or when a certain event occurred, or how to do almost anything. When I nearly lose my sanity trying to remember all the words to an old song I “googled” the title and — voila! The complete lyrics!

So whatever you need to know, dictionaries, encyclopedias and the internet are now all at your service . . . Just look it up!


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