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” book 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.

Icon of thick dictionary with large capital and lowercase A on cover

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 I’m not on the laptop. 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


  1. What? You wonder what?!?!? You can't leave us hangin' like that, Blammer! ^__^

  2. You're not alone, brother. I'm search-crazy myself, although it's usually for more esoteric information than the Dictionary app can provide.

    Word Verification: rabelize -- n. Transform into a 16th-century French satirist. (Did I do that right?)

  3. I had to get rid of my StumbleOn button because I had a similar affliction. "Yes, it's 2am but what's next!?"

    Once again, yours is a more scholarly pursuit while mine is "Bwaha! A picture of a monkey riding a lion riding a bicycle! Genius!"

  4. I love looking random things up. It can become a disease. And my family knows I'm good for it. The other night we were all sitting around talking and some question came up. I can't even remember what it was now. Anyway, Mom looked at me expectantly. "Aren't you going to look it up?" she asked gesturing at my computer. But I was using my ancient computer that I only use for writing and does not have an internet connection. She was very disappointed.

    I just realized this story was long and had no point. I think I need to go now.

    VW: KrxLike - something very similar to a Krx

  5. When I need to look up a word to verify meaning or spelling I normal just grab the dictionary I keep on my desk and it takes less than a minute. Sometimes when I look up a word on the computer my research can turn into an hour. I know about that of which you speak..
    May 3rd A to Z Challenge Reflections Mega Post

  6. Aw, our little Blam Steak got his first spammer!

    You're growing up ;_;


  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone, and apologies for being AWOL... My connection's been out a lot; after multiple page-load failures (and some weird Blogger error messages when I did submit comments here or elsewhere) I've been doing more writing and less posting.


  8. Arben: I'm search-crazy myself, although it's usually for more esoteric information than the Dictionary app can provide.

    Then you're not really used to using Dictionary, buddy. I need to know the name of a Hall & Oates' album? Even quicker to click the icon and type in "Hall & Oates" and pick their name out of the results list to access the Wikipedia entry than to open up a new tab or screen in my browser and type it in there, even though Google is my default new window... Not everything can be found out via Dictionary, it's true, but it's the perfect place to start more often than you'd think.

    You did indeed to that right. Nice one!


  9. Knick-Knack, Paddy Whack,
    Give a Dog a Joan:
    I think I'm glad I don't know what StumbleOn is. And — *gasp* — neither does Dictionary! I'll Yahooglepedia it. The lachrymatoricon™ is appreciated, by the way, but it ain't my first spammer. Most of them I delete; if I don't get to junk one before other comments follow, then if it's not offensive I'll leave it up.


  10. arlee bird: When I need to look up a word to verify meaning or spelling I normal just grab the dictionary I keep on my desk and it takes less than a minute. Sometimes when I look up a word on the computer my research can turn into an hour.

    I'm actually more disciplined about the whole thing than my post made it sound. Often the wacky searches get used as a "study break". Even if it got out of hand, I'd work harder on taming the habit before going cold turkey, because Dictionary is just tremendously useful for actually looking up definitions, spellings, synonyms, usage, and even pronunciations — although the latter is in the realm of curiosity-satisfaction rather than writing aid.

    Not that I'd ever knock someone's preference for good ol bound books! 8^)