On reading the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: the letter C
I turn the 379th page and breathe the tiniest sigh of relief: I’m done with C.
Totaling 168 pages, it is second in bulkiness only to the letter S – a beast of 222 pages that I will be tackling much later. You see, not all letters are created equal. Q has only 20 pages of content and poor little X barely exists with its mere 2 pages of words. However, A, B, and C make up 3 of the 7 bulkiest sections of the dictionary. Having them as the first 3 to battle my way through has been, quite honestly, pretty taxing on my ego and my sense of accomplishment.
Like losing a leg
One of my friends recently asked me what letter I was on and I could see her mild disappointment when I said ‘c’ – as if I were all talk and no action or that what I had accomplished so far was so inconsequential that it was as if I had only talked about what I was going to do rather than what I was actually doing. Like all those people who say ‘one day I’m going to write a book’. Sure, sure. One day. Except the thing is, I felt the same way about how far I’ve come on this quest to read the dictionary in under a year. It seems as if I had started this challenge so long ago and have barely even begun the trek. To keep the hopelessness at bay, I remind myself that these three letters make up a fifth of the dictionary. Think about it this way. If you lost a fifth of your body, that would be like losing a leg. Which is not insignificant, right? That’s what I tell myself anyways.
Now that we’ve gotten the mathematics over with, let’s talk about the fun stuff: the words.
Except that things have begun to change for me. I avidly jumped into this challenge, scribbling down words that made me crack a smile or gain a new understanding. I was a word adventurist – uncovering interesting words and rediscovering old ones in new ways. Sure, I still make note of these kinds of words. Like chunder (‘vomit’) because it makes me envision an earth-shaking, thunderous expulsion of barf. Or cat burglar, which isn’t some crook who steals cats, but is ‘a burglar who enters by climbing to an upper storey.’ Or goofy words like clucker (‘a chicken’) that remind me of home and the way my mother talks. Or words that provide an ‘oh’ moment, like learning that the first sense of clear the air is to make it less sultry.
I have learned that the second sense of crocodile is ‘a line of school children, etcetera walking in pairs’ and that a coffee klatch is ‘an informal gathering for conversation at which coffee is served especially one involving only women’ which comes from German for coffee gossip. I used to think cracker jack indicated something inferior, but it actually means ‘exceptionally fine or expert.’
So, I guess I was pretty wrong about that.
However, I have slowly started to become more censorious*. I realized it when I wrote down cluster bomb and shook my head, genuinely mystified at the devastating ingenuity of mankind. This is ‘an antipersonnel bomb spraying smaller bombs or shrapnel when detonated’. Think about that for a minute. Bombs within a bomb. Like inception, but horrible when you realize it’s for the sole purpose of killing people. Obviously, this isn’t the only invention in the world used to kill, but it’s the one that got to me and made me pay more attention to what I was reading beyond the goofy words, or words that will be great descriptors for fiction or words that strike a sentimental chord with me.
Over the past four months I have pored over the dictionary, reading the words that make up my language, and I’m starting to become disheartened. There is entry upon entry matter-of-factly explaining all of the inventions and things we have done and terms we have used that lead to injury, destruction, and death. We call ourselves civilized, but given that civilization is ‘an advanced stage or system of social development’ and that civilized is ‘having high moral standards’, I’m not so sure.
Our track record of morality is more than slightly suspect. After all, we are the ones to have created the caltrop, ‘an iron ball with 4 spikes placed so one is always facing up’ which was used to impede cavalry horses. There were also comfort women who, during the Second World War, were ‘forcibly recruited by the Japanese army to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers’ and there was also the Children’s Crusade, ‘a movement in 1212 in which tens of thousands of children (mostly from France and Germany) were organized for a crusade to the Holy Land. Most of the children never reached their destination, many being sold into slavery before embarking from French and Italian ports’. Then there are contracts. Not the kind that ensure your gainful employment or to keep your landlords from taking advantage of you, but the ‘criminal arrangement for someone to be killed in exchange for money’.
Daily, I come across names of those who have been murdered throughout history:
St. Catherine of Alexandria: tortured and beheaded.
Jean-Olivier Chenier: killed.
Charles I: beheaded.
Charles XII: killed.
Sir Roger David Casement: hanged.
St. Edmund Campion: tortured and killed.
And the list goes on. Sure, there are plenty of words that indicate the goodness that exists in the world, but each time I come across one of these other – more sinister – words or situations, my perception of humanity worsens just a little bit more. It is incredible, in a very perverse way, just what exactly we are capable of. I suppose that is our crowning glory* – that we are creatures capable of anything. The problem with that curate’s egg* is that the good usually gets drowned out by the bad.
Just look at the headlines of the past few months.
Perhaps, over the course of the next 22 letters of the alphabet, I will find some redemption for humanity. Perhaps, one day, we’ll stop hurting ourselves.
*Censorious – severely critical; fault-finding; quick or eager to criticize
*Crowning glory – the best and most notable aspect of something; a supreme achievement
*Curate’s egg – a thing that is partly good and partly bad