April 16, 2010 | Spanish

Dictionary Size Matters

In a dictionary, do I go for more words, or less back strain?

Yesterday was a mind-numbingly beautiful day, and therefore it became errand day, because I had accumulated a bunch of trip-requiring tasks, and it is nicer to walk from place to place in mild temperatures and sunshine than in much chillier temperatures and rain (the forecast for today). 

Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side

Prince Street Subway Station (I Studied Here)

Since I was going to be making multiple stops around the city, I needed entertainment. For that purpose I selected Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close, by Eric Vogt.

This book was a new discovery, purchased Wednesday. A diminutive volume, it is part of McGraw-Hill’s “Practice Makes Perfect” series. I’ve seen larger books in this series, but this is one of a number of very lightweight books on focused grammatical topics.

Book weight matters when you are walking a lot. Those Spanish verbs traveled with me everywhere yesterday—SoHo, the Upper East Side, Central Park, and various parts of the Upper West Side. I studied on subways, I studied on buses, and if I had been unfortunate enough to have to wait in a line somewhere, I was prepared to study there as well.

Tax Day at the Post Office

Tourists at 72nd Street and Central Park West

I need the grammar drills, because I continue to notice the effects of my Italian studies on my Spanish, particularly written. For one thing, I keep making accent marks that point the wrong way. I also persist in writing quando, which is Italian for “when,” instead of the Spanish version, cuando, and I sometimes still write mia (Italian) instead of the Spanish mi for “my.”

I have no doubt that Spanish will ultimately prevail; I just have so much more history with it than I do with Italian. But I’m impressed by how tenacious a hold on my brain those three fabulous months of Italian have had.

Trees in Full Flower, Central Park

Central Park Walkers

Anyway, in spite of my new, slimmer, travel-ready grammar book, the total weight of my portable language materials did not change. That’s because as soon as I got the grammar book weight down, I removed from my purse my teeny tiny Langenscheidt Diccionario Universal, which I’ve had for years and which is about as heavy as a cell phone, and replaced it with the still modestly sized though nonetheless substantially larger and heavier Oxford Learner’s Spanish Dictionary.

The thing is, I am not a fan of really tiny dictionaries; I use them only when I am desperate. I really dislike looking up words in mini-dictionaries. You go through the trouble of finding where the word should be amid all those other words, and then it isn’t even there, because the dictionary is too small to accommodate it. So it’s frustrating.

A Beautiful Day for Errand Running

And then you have to go look up the word in a second dictionary or, if you are roaming around town, continue on in ignorance. (Yeah, I guess I could install a dictionary on my BlackBerry, but that’s kind of a pain, too, for various reasons.) Even if the word does ultimately end up appearing in your teeny tiny dictionary, you will have been wondering the whole time you were looking it up whether it would indeed turn out to be there. Which creates a weird kind of word-looking-up-related background tension. And I don’t need that in my life. 

So, as I wandered the streets of New York, the hassle associated with the extra dictionary weight was worth the security of knowing that almost any word I wanted was probably already safe and sound in my bag.

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