Dictionary dad... My sister Holly emailed me this morning, and something she said triggered this memory. My dad had a larger vocabulary than you'd expect from a farmer – much larger, actually. His spelling was nearly perfect, too. These served him well in our word games (Scrabble, Boggle, etc.), which our family played a lot of.
When I was learning to read, I often ran into words I didn't know. If I asked my mom about those words, most of the time she would give me an explanation, and only occasionally would she send me to the dictionary. My dad was just the opposite, often sending me to go look up the word and then come back and tell him what it meant as a way of testing my comprehension.
As I worked my way into more adult books, I'd start running into words that the dictionaries we owned at the time didn't list – or listed with definitions that didn't make any sense in the context I was reading them. This was happening because I had started reading older books that we had on our shelves, and those books were written in an older style, sometimes using words that had fallen out of common use. I remember particularly running into this with some of Mark Twain's books, and with translations of Jules Verne. My dad explained that to me, but without any more complete dictionaries the only source of information was my dad's memory – and often these would be words that he didn't know, either.
Then one day dad came home with a new dictionary, a gift for me. I call it “new” because it was new for our household, but it was actually a lovingly used volume. Lots of pages were dog-eared, there was marginalia, and a little stick-figure drawing on the inside back cover. Most likely my dad picked it up at a yard sale somewhere, or perhaps a used book store. Unfortunately I don't remember who the publisher was, or which edition. I do remember, though, what it looked like: it was a hardback, with a bright red cover and embossed gold letters on the cover. And it was huge – so thick and so heavy that at my then-age I could scarcely lift the thing. The best part, though, was that it was a descriptive dictionary, like the OED, showing how words were actually used rather than laying out a “correct” definition. I can't recall ever stumping that dictionary. It became my “word bible” as my reading took me into more and more challenging texts. It was also the start of a life-long relationship with dictionaries for me! :)