“There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away,” wrote Emily Dickinson. I’d probably remember that phrase even if it hadn’t been put on a thousand or so bookmarks that were given to us as children. (I lived in a day when people assumed we would look up the word Frigate. And we, cranberry cruller, did not have Wikipedia.)
But it occurred to me today while I was pricing and packing children’s books. We have had a goodly collection of children’s book this year: I may, thanks to the arrival of certain collections, have to establish separate sections just for the Pop-Ups and the ABC books.
Among these treasures was a Disney vocabulary book. I read several dictionaries as a child, but not because I knew I’d grow up to be a blogger. The fact was that children’s dictionaries often include cartoons to illustrate the words, and that attracted my attention. Words wormed their way into my brain through the cartoon section, a process which continues to this day. Without editorial cartoons, I wouldn’t know the names of half my elected representatives, which is probably just the way they’d like it.
I glanced through this book to see what the gang at Disney was up to, and opened to a page involving words about clothing. Goofy was wearing long underwear. Those of us who read Super Goof back in the day know that Goofy wears long underwear. What I had never been told before was that these are “flannelette long johns.” Long johns I knew, but flannelette was not a word I ran across until I was well past school days, and watching British sitcoms. I shrugged and turned to a counting page. This one pointed out that there were nine buttons on the settee.
I don’t remember anybody having a settee when I was a child. We had couches or, if company was present, sofas. A few people I knew sat on davenports, and there was even one who sat on an ottoman. But he was an exotic, and I got five points toward my People Watching merit badge just for knowing him. Nobody had a settee.
At this point, I peeked at the copyright page. Sure enough, the book had started life as a four-volume set in England. It had been assembled into one volume for young American children, who would now learn not only that people sit on settees but that cars can run on petrol (though the one in the picture uses gasoline) and that pirates wear frock coats.
Did this book, published in 1976, give rise to a new growth of children who spoke of their own coats as “smart” or “natty”, both of which were heard in American speech at one time…possibly a generation or two before? Did they learn they were wearing plimsolls? One may worry about the spelling of “moustache” or the assumption that the reader will recognize the smell of plum pudding. Still, any book which introduces a child to quite excellent words like “metronome” and “tartan” is worth its price for that purpose alone. Whole pages are dedicated to single words like “tuneful” and “unsteadily”, or to words that describe how people walk, whether they are “lumbering”, “striding”, or “mincing”. Yes, I did fret for a moment—we did that with onions in my day—but if lumbering, why not mincing?
Yes, as I sat and stared at the picture of the “milk float”, this wordbook (Words That Tell You About Things) did make me think of Emily’s Frigate: it had taken me across the Atlantic in just a page or two. The Frigate did, however, stop briefly at Bartlett’s to pick up “America and England are two countries divided by a common language.”