Rest in Peace: The Loss of a Latin Dictionary

This woman seems to be reading a reference book.

In the year 2001, I acquired a Mac iBook clamshell laptop, and my work habits changed forever. I no longer felt the need to spread out Latin reference books reverently on the dining-room table. The nomadic laptop culture had made it possible to convert the bed into a home office, and there was plenty of room for Latin books as well. I frequently moved “the office” to various comfy pieces of furniture, depending on whim. Sometimes it was the couch, other times the comfortable chair, still other times the Cafe Diem (a perfect place to work or read Latin).

And so the other night was completely ordinary. I was reading Virgil, balancing the Latin dictionary against my scrunched-up knees in bed. The dictionary had looked a little worn lately, but it was not, I believed, beyond duct tape. I was looking up the word pecten in the dictionary, “comb,” but in this case it means “the sley of the loom,” when the dictionary made a popping sound.

And then the cover fell off.

Oh no! I was ineffably sad.

The replacement came with a book jacket, which I immediately threw out. My original didn’t HAVE a dust jacket.

Lewis and Short is an old, old friend. We refer to it as Lewis and Short, though properly that appellation applies to the larger edition of the dictionary, and the small one bears only Lewis’s name. The Elementary Latin Dictionary was first published in 1889. Charlton T. Lewis writes in the preface: “The vocabulary has been extended to include all words used by Catullus, Tibullus, and Tacitus (in his larger works), as well as those used by Terence, Caesar, Sallust, Cicero, Livy, Nepos, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Phaedrus, and Curtius.” So many writers, so many examples from literature. I am always impressed.

My new copy of Lewis and Short arrived this week, but I cannot bring myself to throw out the old one.

I have a long history with my original copy. First, I wrote my name on the endpage, in my messy handwriting, in case I lost the book. What If I left it in the library? I carried so many books in my bag; it could happen. None of us could afford phones in those days, but I could go to a phone booth and make a call for 25 cents. And of course no one steals a Latin dictionary, so the librarian would have it waiting for me at the desk.

The Latin dictionary has lived in seven cities. In graduate school when my boyfriend visited for a weekend, we would get up early Sunday morning and drag ourselves and our classical paraphernalia to an enclosed-porch 24-hour library smoking lounge. It was always full, and God, did it stink of smoke. But there we sat, doing our work intensely, because he had a long drive home, and there was so much to do.

Classics has been a lifetime personal commitment. There have been many, many, many years when I have read Latin literature on my own. It is a quiet kind of fun, but I love it. And there is so much to read. The true classics I read again and again, but, of course, some are better than others. I do not recommend Lucan’s Pharasalia. Spare yourself.

The loss of my dictionary has made me appreciate the toils of Victorian lexicographers. More than a century later, Lewis’s Elementary Latin Dictionary is still an essential work.

And now I have two copies. Eventually, I’ll throw out the old one.

But until then…

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