Words to the Wise
My grandfather always had a dictionary on his night table. I have one on my Apple laptop. His was a so-called “pocket” paperback almost as thick as it was wide; mine is virtual, an application represented by the icon below in the dock of programs and folders at the right of my computer screen.
The lure of Dictionary is strong. Enter a word, and it not only returns a definition
and usage from The New Oxford American Dictionary but synonyms from The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and, if you’re connected to the Internet, a Wikipedia entry (or disambiguation page) as well. It’s a ridiculously quick and comprehensive research tool — as well as a microcosm of the paragon of potential procrastination that is the Web itself, since hyperlinks abound and the results list for any given word is often fascinating. I’m pretty disciplined about not following flights of fancy too far, although I admit to indulging spontaneous bouts of “Hey, I wonder...” entirely unrelated to what I’m working on, because suddenly the answer seems gravely important and if I don’t at least type the relevant word or phrase into Dictionary’s search field to read up on later then I might forget. Other people for whom frivolous research is considered fun will be able to relate. For the rest of you, well, I can’t really explain it if you don’t already understand.
• “Hey, I wonder exactly what the difference is between ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’.”
• “Speaking of which... What’s that caffeine-like chemical compound in chocolate that starts with a T whose name I can’t remember?”
• “Hey, I wonder why they changed the name of the Gene Wilder movie version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
The instant gratification provided by Dictionary, even moreso than that offered by search engines, has become such a part of my life that “Hey, I wonder...” moments frustratingly come, unbidden, when the laptop isn’t open or in my vicinity at all. I’ve been known to fire up the laptop purely to sate my curiosity, but I’m trying to tame that habit. We’re still a ways off from Star Trek’s “Computer: List all known cover versions of ‘The Candy Man’ from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in chronological order.” I’m telling you, if I lived in that world I’d be throwing out questions into thin air all-the-frickin’-time. Just imagine being able to ask the above, then hear recordings of the results, without having to type anything! Ah, World of Roddenberry, how I covet your easily accessible repositories of knowledge, astounding medical technology, and impossible holodecks.
Pretty much like I thought, “cacao” is the name of the plant or bean whereas “cocoa” is used for the various products made from it, although it’s also used to refer to the bean itself. The compound is theobromine. Depending on the source, Charlie became Willy Wonka either because of the real-world merchandising tie in of Wonka Bars or because “Charlie” was a derogatory term for the Viet Cong in popular usage at the time, or both; Wikipedia’s assertion of the latter was uncited, so I turned the question over to Google, but a cursory search was inconclusive and I’m not really that interested.
Samuel Johnson couldn’t possibly have fathomed us having this information at our fingertips when he assembled his landmark dictionary. Hey, I wonder...
Related: Mean • One to Tentacle • Myth and Fingerprints