In Praise of Etymology

In a home where books were scarce

except for shelves of Wodehouse

and my father’s library books,

our holy temple of the word

was Newnes’ Comprehensive Dictionary.

Dark blue and leather-bound,

the title was tooled in gold,

with endpapers marbled indigo.

Stout from all the truth it held,

this book became our referee

its only rivals, The Family Doctor

and Masterworks of British Art.

Some words came with an etching

exotic facts received a photograph,

black and white, of course:

triremes engraved in stone,

Venetian glass, the Taj Mahal,

distant scenes beyond my reach

here, at the bottom of the known world.

Such a child, in nineteen-forty-eight,

was unlikely ever to see

“The Martello Tower at Hythe”,

“A White Peacock” or, especially,

“A Potter at his Wheel in Old Japan”.

Now I save the Newnes for crosswords,

seizing any chance to search

for stranger words not covered by

its glossy, modern counterparts

in a house too stuffed with books.

I’ve found iridium and chrism,

majuscule, quinta, ipecacuanha …

these words that beckon and beguile

my reading father left for me to find.

I even catch the smoky scent of him

in creamy pages, hand-sewn, and still

full of the old power to comfort and inform.

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