Look It Up, Karen

- by Karen Tintori

A movie scene flashed across the tv screen recently while my husband and I were sitting together in the family room – I have no idea what movie, because he is supreme king of the channel changers.  In any event, the brief exchange I caught between two characters had me instantly gritting my teeth.  

Male character #1 — “How do you spell (insert any word here, I’ve forgotten the exact dialogue)?”

Male character #2 — “Go look it up in the dictionary.”

Male character #1 — “Come on.  I mean, how do you expect me to find it in the dictionary if I don’t know how to spell it?”

I threw my hands up in the air.   “That’s exactly what my father used to do to me,” I complained to the supreme king of the channel changers.  “And I hated it!”

Well, once I’d fully processed what I’d just seen (and had so riled me), I realized it wasn’t exactly what my father used to do to me — but the scenario was close enough that it instantly dredged up those old feelings of frustration and annoyance.  Our exchange used to go more like:

“What does (insert your own word, I’ve long since forgotten the ones that stymied me) mean?”  The question usually came while I was reading the newspaper, or studying a textbook, or engrossed in a novel, and had just encountered an unfamiliar word.  God knows why I bothered to ask my dad after the first few times.  His answer never changed.

“Go look it up in the dictionary.” 

“Dad.  You’re so mean.  Why should I have to stop reading and waste time getting up to go find the dictionary when you can just tell me?”  

My whines were always met with silence.

Nine times out of ten, I’d stubbornly sit there and keep reading, making a mental note to go look up the word later.  (I rarely did.)  Most often, I fooled myself into thinking I’d figured out the word’s meaning in its context.

Now, umpteen years later, I understand that my father was trying to give me those words in a more meaningful way than if he’d merely rattled off their definitions.  It was through repeatedly writing vocabulary words, writing out their definitions and then using them in sentences, that I learned to use and love English words as a brand new reader in grade school.  And it’s the system I’ve told myself I need to employ now, as an adult haphazardly learning Italian through cassettes, CDs, movies, books and conversations. 

I realize now that I am a visual learner, although I doubt my father knew that about me back then.  Although my husband will readily tell me the meaning of an Italian word he knows and I don’t, I’ve come to recognize that in order to own these new and foreign vocabulary words, I need to see them, write them, define them and then use them in sentences.   

My father must be smiling up there somewhere.  The kid finally got it.

I had only one dictionary experience with my mother while I was growing up, and recalling it always evokes smiles at my mother’s clever response to my questions about a new word I brought home from school.  One day when I was in fifth grade, the nun was called out of the room, and some of the boys began tossing around a word I hadn’t heard before.  That word created quite a sensation, eliciting repetition and snickers and everything else you’d imagine the F-word would ignite in a group of prepubescent Catholic school boys. 

My mother was the picture of equanimity when I came home from that day and asked her what the F-word meant.  I have to give her credit.  She didn’t move an eyebrow hair.

“There’s no such word.”

“Oh, yes, there is.”  I was adamant.  “All the boys were saying it at school.  They even spelled it.”  And then I did.

“Karen Ann, there is no such word.”

“Yes.  I swear.  There is.”

“Ok.  Then go look it up in the dictionary.”

That time, I did go off to find the dictionary.  I had a point to prove — for about as long as it took to find the dictionary and scan down the list of words beginning with F and U.

Sure enough, the F-word wasn’t in Webster’s.  My mother was right, and all those stupid boys in my class were wrong. 

And I told them so the next day.

The movie the other night pointed up how much I still chafe, these many years later, over my father’s constant refusal to tell me the meaning of a word and his insistence that I consult the dictionary instead.  It also reminded me of my fifth grade vocabulary experience with my mother — and I’m sitting here with a silly little smile on my face, giving her credit for so adroitly dodging dealing with the F-word by telling me to go do the same thing.


  1. My dad used to tell me the same thing.

  2. And did you heed his advice, Estella? Or did you dig in, like I did? LOL.


  3. English wasn’t my parents’ first language so I used to head to the dictionary by choice. Must have been a weird kid :-) Seriously, though, I love dictionaries. At my high school, on detention, we’d either have to right lines from the bible or from a dictionary. I LOVED dictionary detention days! Yup, definitely weird.

  4. You had smart teachers. My dad would have gotten along really well with them.

    Now, how did you insert a smiley in your response? And why can’t I see how to do it, too?

    And don’t tell me to go look it up! Because if I knew where to go look it up, the smiley would already be here.

    Oh, wait! I bet you typed a colon and an end paren! Gonna try.



  5. I’m so proud of myself.

    :) :) :)

  6. I heard the same message as a child, for both spelling and definitions. As the overachieving eldest child, I would go look it up, but I would make a production out of it- sigh, grumble, grumble. ;-) My father (the biology professor) also pointed to books when it came to answering questions about sex. :-o

  7. My mom took me into her bedroom when I was thirteen, opened a drawer to dig out a buried booklet published by Kotex. Said to let her know if I had any questions.

    Well, hell, I knew all about that from my girlfriends by then.


  8. Hi Karen~~
    Very well said! I have been teaching myself German for a few years, from CDs and books. I LOVE it. I too have to write a word down, spend time with it so to speak, to actually come to be able to pull it out of my brain when needed, and use it….


  9. The love of English must run in the family. I buy Erin a “Word a Day” calendar every year for Christmas. She proceeds to email her friends her new word everyday using it in a sentence. I think the dictionary is her favorite book. She used to rate her boyfriends by whether or not they could beat her at Scrabble.

  10. Claire,

    That is hysterical. Good for Erin! I wonder if there are Word a Day calendars in Italian? I need one!


  11. Caroline,

    Glad to see there are more adults like my husband and me, studying a foreign language on our own.

    Sure keeps the brain cells busy. When we return from Italy, we think in Italian — but that only lasts a few days. Same as our promises to each other to converse for a short time each day only in Italian.