The Ancient Modern
Evelyn Mary’s Dictionary / Joshua Alan Sturgill
That year, Evelyn Mary’s birthday was on Sunday, and when she came downstairs for breakfast, her father looked up from the stove and said, “Happy Birthday, Evelyn. I made you pancakes. And I think there’s something for you in the dining room.”
Evelyn ran into the dining room and looked around. A squarish, bulky present in beautiful blue wrapping paper was sitting on the table.
“Oh, thank you!” gasped Evelyn, carrying it back into the kitchen. “Can I open it now?”
“Please do,” said her father.
She set the present on her lap and carefully pulled open the bright paper.
Her eyes grew round as she looked excitedly at the huge book in her hands.
“What is it?” She asked.
“It’s a dictionary,” said her father.
“What does it do?” asked Evelyn.
“It has all the words in it.”
“All the words?” asked Evelyn, incredulously.
“Well,” said her father with a smile, “you’ll have to see for yourself.”
Evelyn spent the day reading her new dictionary. She started with the A’s and read and read. She read from breakfast until lunch, from lunch until dinner, from dinner until bedtime. Then she brushed her teeth and put on her pajamas and read all night.
The next morning was Monday, a school day. Evelyn got up, dressed, and looked into her backpack. Her new dictionary was too big to fit in with all the other things, but she wasn’t worried.
She had spent the whole night learning new words, so she finished making her bed and put the dictionary on her pillow. “Irrigation. Irritation. Inspiration.” she said quietly. “Verdant. Evergreen. Amoeba,” and then quickly, “Remainder. Retainer. Reindeer.”
As she rode the bus to school, she thought of all the words she’d learned. Some of them she didn’t understand. But they were all hers. Would she remember them? Would she remember how to say them? The new words were huge, magical things that seemed to be swimming around inside her, waiting to burst out.
When Evelyn got to school, her first class was science. The teacher handed everyone a paper with pictures of birds and their eggs on it.
“Who can tell me what this bird is?” said the teacher.
“Chicken!” said Evelyn—and then suddenly, because it came to her, she said “Chicken Chandelier!”
It was the most marvelous feeling.
“What did you say?” asked the teacher, confused.
“Chicken Chandelier!” said Evelyn happily. The teacher stared at her for a moment, then seemed to decide he had misheard.
Everything was fine until Evelyn’s geography lesson an hour later. The students were studying cities and states. “Who can tell me the biggest city in Alabama?” asked her teacher.
“Alabama banana!” Said Evelyn. And then, just for fun, “Alabama Banana Bandanna!”
“I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said her teacher.
“Interstellar approbation!” said Evelyn. “Excuse me?” asked the teacher sternly.
“Latitude longitude altitude platitude,” said Evelyn.
“That’s it!” said her teacher. “We’re going to the principal’s office. Come with me.”
“Whippersnapper pianissimo,” said Evelyn as she followed her teacher down the hall to the principal’s office.
“And who’s this?” said the principle, frowning at her a moment later.
“Accumulated. Cumbersome. Copasetic.” said Evelyn.
“What?” said the principal, his frown changing to look of disbelief.
“Groovy effluvia,” said Evelyn.
“Disgusting,” said the Principal.
“You see?” said her teacher, “This is what I’ve had to put up with all day. In science class, all she would say was ‘Chicken Chandelier’.”
“Chicken Chandelier Shampoo!” said Evelyn, just for the delight of it.
“Ack! Like that!” cried the teacher, “And in geography class, all she would say was ‘Alabama Banana’.”
“Alabama Banana Bandanna,” Evelyn corrected her. And just to show that she knew the biggest city: “Birmingham hemisphere underwear!”
“Well,” said the principal, “these kinds of unprincipled words won’t be tolerated in a principal’s office. We’ll have to call her father.”
Evelyn waited patiently for her father to arrive. Occasionally, she would say words she remembered from the dictionary, like “apostrophe epiphany cacophony,” or “hardscrabble peppery constable usable.”
When her father arrived, the principal asked him to take a seat. “I’m sorry to say, sir, that your daughter has been behaving strangely. Apparently, she’s been saying absolute nonsense all day, strange words and—
“Polysyllabic gobbledygook?” suggested Evelyn’s father.
“Precisely,” said the principal. But he wasn’t quite sure what that meant. “Of course, we can’t allow that kind of thing to go on at our school, so we’ve decided—
“Immediate remedial retribution?” said Evelyn’s father.
“Um…yes,” said the principal. Evelyn’s father stood up, thanked the principal and walked with Evelyn out to the car. They drove happily in silence, each thinking about the beauty of speech and words.
When they arrived home, her father said with a smile, “It’s not enough to know the words. That’s the first step. You will have to learn how to use them, too.”
That night, as Evelyn’s father tucked her into bed and gave her a kiss on the forehead. He opened the dictionary. “Recalcitrant,” he said.
“Cheesemonger forthwith,” Evelyn replied with a yawn.
“Somnolent circumambulation,” said her father.
Evelyn thought of all the words she had learned. She knew what they meant and how to say them. She loved putting them together and taking them apart; she loved how little words made big words and how the sense and the nonsense seemed to be friends.
Next, she decided, she would learn how to use them more carefully. Words are powerful, Evelyn thought. Vigorous. Verdant. Acrobatic. Enticing. Profound.
“Good night,” said Evelyn, and went promptly to sleep.