Nabokov Sent Me to the Stacks

Reading Nabokov is like reading Beckett: you know every word was carefully chosen, so when you come across one you’ve never seen before, you look it up. (This is even more true, and more rewarding, when reading Beckett in French. But let’s not get out of hand. This post is pretentious enough already.)

I recently dived into Speak, Memory and came across the words “hiemal” and “drisk.” Since my laptop is always within arm’s reach, I consulted the Mac dictionary. Nothing doing. Yes, even with the Wikipedia option selected.

Undeterred, I hopped on over to, my favorite website for looking up words while being assaulted by ads. Again, no luck. I could have started a free trial with the unabridged dictionary, but I remembered I also owned one of those printed-and-bound versions. It’s the meaty tenth edition of the Concise Oxford, with motherfucking thumb tabs and everything.

“Concise” should’ve been the first red flag, because what do you know:

Okay, it’s blurry. Blame my crappy iPhone. Trust me, it skips from “hie” to “hierarchy.”

Lucky for me, I work at an office with a suite of copyeditors. And where there’s copyeditors, there’s unabridged dictionaries. Imposing tomes so large you can’t carry it on your own. One of these rests open on a slanted dais, like a holy text. (Which it is.) I flipped through its several thousand pages and discovered the following.

Hiemal, adj.: relating to winter.

Drisk, n.: a light drizzle. (Derived from New England slang, which is funny when you consider Nabokov was using the noun to discuss Tolstoy.)

I don’t want to over-analyze this. But it was refreshing to know there are some things to be found only in print. I don’t care if this is a bleeding-edge case, or if there’s an online dictionary I could’ve easily checked. It’s a novel feeling to look up sources in the physical world, and I hope to have occasion to do it again sometime.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Nabokov Sent Me to the Stacks

  1. mia

    Sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than a challenging but ultimately successful definition hunt. Reminds me of my thesis advisor walking me to her massive (thumb-tabbed!) dictionary to prove to me a word I wanted to use wasn’t officially a word. Maybe it was “grok”? I disremember.

    Man, I love a big fat dictionary.

    Do you know the define function in Google search fields? Typing define: (define followed by a colon, a space, then a word or phrase) will give you a list of different online definitions. You can skip the colon but I like those results better.

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