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Dictionary Days Hardcover – March 24, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-1555974190 ISBN-10: 1555974198 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; 1st edition (March 24, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555974198
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555974190
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 7.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,314,285 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Springing from his free-form talk at a Michigan Quarterly Review panel discussion, this discursive and charming collection of personal essays by prolific Amherst professor Stavans (Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language) explores his lifelong obsession with dictionaries, concordances and lexicons. Just a few examples from his bulging reference shelves include Dr. Johnson's seminal dictionary, the Byzantine Lexeis, the medieval Kitab al-'Ain and Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas. Stavans's ideal of the dictionary represents not only "raw material" for polyglot scholars like himself. It's also "the code to forthcoming masterpieces" such as Don Quixote,Moby-Dick and all of Shakespeare. Stavans cites these and more with offhand erudition. Drawing on his Mexican-American and Jewish backgrounds, he shares his experiences with English, Spanish and Yiddish and ventures into encounters with Arabic, Chinese and Sumerian. He muses on the meanings of particular words (like "love" and "death") in many languages and on the ambiguous status of colloquial speech, such as Spanglish and four-letter words. At his most playful, Stavans reveals his instructional debt to Fictionary, his deep enjoyment of "cheesy" Mexican musicals and his dreams of fantastical blank books that contain only transporting aromas. Unlike most dictionaries, Stavans's eclectic volume feels too brief, but it shares their enlightening and browsable qualities for anyone who loves the serendipities of language. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Authoritative and open, precise and wild, linguist Stavans shares his obsessive love for dictionaries and shows how the words we use define our history and who we are. Even with the heavy entomological stuff--and there is lots of that--he is chatty and playful, with great quotes from Twain, Singer, Neruda, and more. Best of all is the personal commentary throughout, whether Stavans is reflecting on his Mexican Jewish roots, his weary experience of the meaning of kitsch and blah, or purists' criticism of his own dictionary of Spanglish. When will his beloved American lexicons include Latino words, Stavans wonders. Across all borders, he chooses his topics with eclectic abandon, discussing not only love and honor but also curses (Why did it take so long for dictionaries to include the f-word, one of the most used words in the English language?). Lexicographers will relish this mix of memoir and language analysis, and so will anyone who knows that words have attitude. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Crocker on July 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Even though Ilan Stavans is an OED man and I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, he is still one of my favorite writers and Dictionary Days is a great pleasure to read. The book has its origins in an improvised talk Stavans gave in Ann Arbor, Michigan [Ink, Inc.] and the essays in Dictionary Days all have a stream of consciousness, jamming on the dictionary and word theme feel. Desert Notes by Barry Lopez and Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman cover very different subjects from Dictionary Days, but they're the books that came to mind when I finished reading Dictionary Days. If the reader is looking for a scholarly book on words and dictionaries, this isn't it, but one hopes Stavans will write that book someday. [And since we're on the subject of dictionaries, I recommend that all dictionary freaks check out a copy of Glossary of Geology, Fourth Edition (4th ed) by Julia A. Jackson (Editor), a technical dictionary with a twist.]
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By David Evans VINE VOICE on September 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Dr. Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary of the English language, defined an "essay" as "not a regular and orderly composition." Stavans, in this collection of essays on dictionaries and words, is consistent in his adherence to that definition, if nothing else. The author explores the history of dictionaries across languages and cultures, the exclusion of "cacophonous words" (i.e., swear words), the inclusion of cultural biases, and more general thoughts on language and thought. Sometimes fascinating, sometimes taxing, Stavans takes us on a ride through a mind fascinated (and perhaps obsessed) by words.

Interesting vignettes fill the book. We learn that Founding Father John Adams predicted the ultimate dominance of English as a world language, why "African" was excluded from the original Oxford English Dictionary and "American" was not, and how a severed arm (not his) inspired Stavans to write. The author gives us examples of humorous mistakes in dictionaries gone by: for example, a 1967 Spanish dictionary defines a day as "the space of time needed by the Sun to completely round the Earth."

Stavans is creative: in one chapter he retells a dream, in another he recounts an imagined visit by the 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson to the author's Massachusetts home, and in a third he explores cross-cultural linguistic challenges through the story of an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. He spends most of one essay ruminating on a certain swear word and whether its exclusion from many lexicons is right or wise. We read passages in Latin, Greek, Yiddish, and Spanish. The book has an all-star cast, with quotes from Neruda, Flaubert, Carroll, Shakespeare, Conrad, and the musical Singing in the Rain, and allusions to many more (Milton, Pope, Swift, and Kafka among them).
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Veronica Albin on July 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I heard Stavans give a brilliant presentation at the American Translators Association's annual conference in Toronto about his then most recent autobiographical book "On Borrowed Words." In it we learn that the author's last name is Stavchansky, and that it was his father who first started using its abbreviated form, Stavans, as his professional stage name.

I introduced myself after the talk and then wrote him a short 'thank you' email from home. It did not surprise me that he answered it, for I knew from his demeanor that he was eminently approachable, but what did surprise me was its warmth and playfulness. Not three weeks later he was due in my home town to present on his edition of I.B. Singer and we had him for dinner. He took to my bookshelves like fish to water and zeroed in on my dictionaries. It was then that he told me that he was finishing up a book entitled "Dictionary Days." No sooner was he back home that I got the next-to-final draft by email asking for comments from a fellow dictionary addict. It was then that I knew that Stavans ought not to be defined solely in terms of intelligence, erudition, and approachability, but also on generosity and trust, for he was sending the unpublished work to someone he barely knew and who has written on dictionaries. After a few exchanges, I knew that I needed to add at least one more hue to my previous impressions if I was to define Ilan accurately: unarrogant (yes, there is such a word!). Zero, zilch, niente, nada de arrogancia. You will get exactly that erudite, down-to-earth, and approachable Ilan in Dictionary Days. The essay collection is warm, and playful, and smart, and generous...

What is Dictionary Days's crowning achievement? I'd say that it makes us look at words anew.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on July 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Ilan Stavans is a multiculturalist at its best: born in Mexico of Jewish descent with Eastern European origins, he speaks six languages fluently and has been immersed in dictionaries all his life. His history of lexicography surveys many different languages in essays which survey the history of words, cultures, and dictionaries alike. Fun anecdotes juxtapose serious scholarship combine in the pages of Dictionary Days providing a lively read which is very highly recommended for both leisure and study.
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on August 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author seems more interested in his own life story and personal flights of fancy than I expected when choosing to buy this small book. Not a bad book, but not great either. I do agree with Professor Stavans on the importance of Dr. Johnson, and urge everyone to read James Boswell's great biography of the London drudge.

One sidelight: Anyone wondering about the current U.S. problem with illegal immigration might benefit from reading chapter nine of Dictionary Days.
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