Dad’s Dictionary

My father has a refrain for when he overhears one of us, his three children, make a grammatical mistake. “You speak exactly one language, so speak it correctly!” My father grew up in a formerly ...

My father has a refrain for when he overhears one of us, his three children, make a grammatical mistake. “You speak exactly one language, so speak it correctly!”

My father grew up in a formerly French territory in South India, so he spoke Tamil at home, was educated in English, learned French in school, picked up Hindi when he began working, and amassed a working Italian vocabulary on a European business trip. His children, however, have not (yet) turned out properly multilingual, despite a uniquely international upbringing. Raised in the Middle East, South East Asia, India and the US, we are weak at our mother tongue, rusty with our second languages, and speak not a lick of Arabic or Cantonese. The punishment is simple: we are not allowed to make any mistakes when speaking English.

Needless to say, my father’s English is impeccable: elastic with idioms, graceful in elocution, precise. Whether on a business call or lecturing his children, my father never just speaks, he articulates.


articulate v. [ahr-tik-yuh-lit; v. ahr-tik-yuh-leyt]


·         to utter clearly and distinctly; pronounce with clarity

·         using language easily and fluently; having facility with words

·         capable of speech; not speechless

I teach a writing course to college freshmen where my singular goal is that we all articulate. A teacher who can utter clearly and distinctly will successfully convey her instructions to the class; a student having facility with words
will write a strong essay. If writing is a language, my students must speak it correctly. They must articulate.

I found the perfect essay to discuss with my class: “Draft No. 4” by John McPhee, published in the New Yorker on April 29, 2013. McPhee has been writing for over fifty years, and this piece celebrates the atoms in his galaxy of publications and prizes: the words that cluster together into the sentences, paragraphs, pages and chapters that, in turn, form shapely constellations.

In seven pages McPhee describes the tedium of writing, offers tips for a first draft, and argues that a dictionary is where you will find the ideal replacement for a word seeking improvement. He shares anecdotes about his daughters, also writers, and their mutual empathy as they struggle with words and their synonyms.

Unlike Jenny and Martha McPhee, I did not follow in my father’s professional footsteps, though we did experiment with synonyms. We lived in Bahrain until I was ten, and on weekend mornings my father would sit undisturbed in a corner of the living room with the crossword from the Gulf Daily News. If I rose early enough to catch him at it he would let me sit in his lap and collaborate. Our only aid was an early edition of Roget’s Thesaurus with a stark grey cover and an embossed title in crimson lettering. I loved handling its bulk; the pages were silky-soft. My father would ponder, ask me to look up a word, and I would flip through slowly, savoring the sound of glossy pages separating. Our trick to fit synonyms into the grid didn’t always work, but that did not detract from the fun of discovering words, sounding them out, and, most of all, being able to suggest a word to my father that he had not heard: to out-articulate him, if only for a breath.




McPhee demonstrates that the best synonyms for a word do not come from the thesaurus, but from the dictionary. My father, by definition wiser, knew this already. It was rare to have access to English periodicals in the early ’60s in South India, yet he poured over every issue of Readers Digest as a child. My favorite section of that magazine (when it was still readable, back in the ’90s) was Drama in Real Life, full of near-fatal accidents and heroic strangers; a guaranteed narrative arc. But my father, ever rational, made sure that after getting my fill of “drama” and bite-sized jokes about the workplace, I turned to the vocabulary quiz in the back, which proudly proclaimed that “it pays to increase your word power.” By now an early adolescent and living in Singapore, I spent the evenings crawling around the house with my baby brother while answering multiple-choice questions with my father for fun.


rational adj. [rashuh-nl, rash-nl]


·         agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible

·         having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense

·         of, relating to, or constituting reasoning powers


The Singapore government was a benevolent dictatorship. So was childhood with my parents. My mother was consistently stern: no, you could not stay up late; no, you could not watch a PG-13 movie at age 11; no, you could not skip brushing your teeth. Arguing with my father was risky business, although he was always agreeable to reason. He wasn’t adamant about it, or armed against it, he was simply agreeable. If you wanted to do something novel, you stated your case—eloquently—and explained, rationally, your justification. As straightforward as this sounds, it did not often work against a man of sound judgment. You might have asked to visit a friend the evening before a test at school, but somehow, by the end of the discussion, have come around to his side, agreeing wholeheartedly that not only should you prepare for the test instead, but also read an extra chapter of the textbook while you were at it.

My middle school held a United Nations-sponsored concert and invited students to participate. A knee-jerk curiosity about this international body led to a systematic conversation with my father about the history of the UN, India’s role in the organization, and a concert given by one of India’s most famous singers at the General Assembly in 1966 that was met with standing ovations and loud applause. An hour after I had asked a simple question about the role of the United Nations, my father—literally—talked me into auditioning my Indian classical musical talents for a spot in the show. Whether the organizers said yes out of shock or pity I’ll never know, but I performed the same song that M. S. Subbulakshmi had sung thirty years earlier, a nervous and awkward teenager on stage in front of the entire school. My parents clapped hard when I was done.

A few years later my family moved again. We were now living in India, a first for my siblings and me. We attended “English-medium” schools where the language of instruction was English peppered with Hindi words. Students, who often spoke other languages at home, exercised creative license in school communication and certain phrases stuck. “You” was permanently replaced by “y’all,” so “all of you” became “all of y’all,” and an announcement to the whole class became inherently redundant: “all of y’all need to come on time to class or else we’ll get in trouble.” Daily, we were told to  “give up” our homework to our teachers, and I made the mistake of recounting such episodes at home.

“Give up?” my father challenged. “Are you surrendering your homework to your teacher? You speak exactly one language…”

From that day on I submitted all my assignments.




systematic adj. [sis-tuhmat-ik]


·         having, showing, or involving a system, method or plan

·         given to or using a system or method; methodical

·         arranging in or comprising an ordered system


My father was the family’s alarm clock, impossibly alert in the early morning and always willing to review study materials with us before a test. So when he woke me up one test-free morning, I frowned my befuddlement at him. Ignoring my protest, my father showed me the book in his hands, a paperback with a red cover, browned pages and tiny print that gave it an old feel: Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis. I was a high school junior and university was on the horizon. Essays and standardized tests were headed my way, and it was time to start preparing. This book was a bundle of fun—remember Word Power from Reader’s Digest?—with games and patterns and tricks. Look, the first activity, printed before the Table of Contents, was to Test Your Vocabulary Range, and the first word was “disheveled.” I knew what that word meant! This would be easy! Now get up.

I stuck with it for a few weeks, waking up early, learning the etymology of seemingly random words that became less random in Latin, understanding the difference between “egoistic” and “egotistic.” Strengthening my language skills was not about memorizing definitions but starting at the source, involving a system of etymology, history, anthropology and linguistics. Likewise, my father and I would be methodical about my college applications. Every essay I wrote would be reviewed by my father, which won me computer privileges in my room in our house in New Jersey, where we had just moved and where we spent two years. I discovered Track Changes in Microsoft Word, which I assumed existed only on office computers such as my father’s, from which he sent me painstaking line edits on each version of each essay that I wrote.

In April 2003 I came home to a fat envelope stamped “Columbia University.” I ran around my entire house—upstairs, downstairs, and the basement—screaming, totally inarticulate with surprise and joy. Then I called my father on the phone, still panting, to shout the news into the phone. He was thrilled. We had done it.

But the one essay my father did not edit, because I was too drained to care any longer, was my submission for Columbia. The one academic decision I didn’t consult my father about was to apply to a graduate program in creative writing. And when I quit my corporate job for the second time to pursue a freelance life, he did not lecture me or try to talk me out of it. This might be because the one language I speak (and teach), I speak correctly. I am capable of speech, sometimes memorable, often spontaneous, always correct. My reasoning powers have manifest, and appear intact. And my lesson plans—indeed, my life plans—are an ordered system that give my father confidence.

My father is articulate, rational, and systematic. I am verbose, erratic, and scattered. And whether these are synonyms or not, my father defines who I am. icon

Featured image: Dictionary. Photograph by greeblie / Flickr