My love for words began as an exercise in discipline.
When I was in primary school, my year 5 teacher informed my parents that I would always be five thousand words behind the others in my vocabulary. There was no judgment, no instruction. He merely stated it as a matter of fact.
In a child-like attempt to counter my teacher’s claim, I began to memorise words from my dictionary.
It was the Oxford Dictionary, with a blue, green, and red hard cover. The colours were not primary – rather muted, or faded, perhaps, from exposure to sunlight. It was three inches thick and displayed rampant signs of wear and tear. The corners of the cover were ragged, and the spine had long separated from the book itself – it literally hung on by a few loose threads. The pages themselves were far from pristine. Most were crinkled, but beautifully so.
I do not remember how I came to be in possession of this dictionary. Most likely, my parents gave it to me. Most likely, my dad gave it to me. Most likely, it had been his own.
(Perhaps he used it himself when he studied at college. In fact, didn’t he go to Oxford University for a year or so? My knowledge of such details are vague at best, and I know, with the strongest convinction of heart, that this is something I must rectify.)
And so, with the words of my teacher ringing in my ears, I began with the letter A and started memorising.
I highlighted each word as I committed it to memory, storing each one away for future use like nuts for the winter. It seemed mundane at first. But gradually, I gained momentum. The more words I learnt, the easier it became.
Each word was labelled a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Each word was placed into a sentence with both clarity and precision. Sample sentences, I used to call them.
Over time, it became clear to me that I needed to read books rather than simply memorise a dictionary. Henceforth, a new system emerged. Every time I came upon a word I didn’t understand, I wrote it down. Once my list of new-to-me words grew long enough, I looked up their meanings and copied them en masse onto loose A4 pages. I included their derivatives as well as the sample sentences. I stored all these pages in a plain white binder, and I referred to them often. It was like my own private version of the Oxford Dictionary, selectively pruned for my usage and purposes.
Despite my strict and clinical approach to learning new words, the habit set me in good stead. My vocabulary flourished, yes, but more importantly, my love for words both widened and deepened.
The binder itself no longer exists. I suspect it was discarded somewhere between our second and third moves. I wish now that I’d kept it: documented proof of my love affair with memorising new words.
As for that red, green, and blue dictionary with the dangling spine, I long to hold it in my hands once more.
I hope against hope that my dad has it still, that he held onto it when I moved out, perhaps casually flung into one of the deep cavities of his office cupboards. An unassuming keepsake, waiting to be unearthed and cherished once more.