Permanent link to this page


Things the Dictionary Will Not Tell a Person


There are things the dictionary cannot tell you. And there are many things you cannot find in the dictionary. What you can do is find a physical description of what a penis is, and a vagina, and intercourse.
Ray is in the dining room. He is nine and roughly a half years old, in sweatpants and matching sweatshirt with triangles of primary colors. The chair he sits in - properly, like he is in school - is too high. His feet dangle inches from the floor, white socks drooping off them, he sways them back and forth, and his hair swirls around his head like a nest for a little bird. Winter presses on the windows. He knows the squares of the world outside the windows, the walls around him are the walls he knows – white fading to tan with a texture like somebody went crazy throwing spitballs evenly so it looks kind of nice. These are the walls and windows he compares all walls and windows to. He picks up an animal cracker with pointer and thumb, brings it to his mouth, and flips the flimsy dictionary page.
For an assignment he is looking up the word peripheral, little pointer lining down the entries, pupils catching definitions while most blend together a jumble, black letters:

            penalize – verb, “subjected to penalty or to put under a disadvantage or handicap”
            pending – a preposition meaning “while awaiting,” also a adjective meaning “about to take place”
            pendular - an adjective, “of or pertaining to a pendulum” 
            penetrating – a verb meaning a lot of things depending if it is with a object or not - “to enter the interior of”, “to arrive at the truth or meaning of; understand; comprehend”
And then he finds himself at penis and his eye is captured.
There isn’t even a picture of a penis. There is a picture of Samuel Pepys though. Samuel Pepys, the English diarist who lived from 1633 to 1703, and also there is a picture of Robert E. Peary, who apparently was a Arctic Explorer. Ray reads the entry for penis and then there are questions in his head.

Face blushing, intercourse was used in one definition of penis. So he goes to intercourse. All of this is giving him a lot of blank lines in his head with question marks at the ends of them, blank lines he is trying to fill in so he at least knows what the questions are. He pulls his legs up on the seat, tucks them under him, springs up slowly, curling over the pages. The pages flap back and forth, information from one vague, scientific definition to another. With each of these words he feels he shouldn’t be reading, this odd feeling in his body increases, with the awareness of the sitcom Family Matters in the other room, the laughs from the laugh track - that being the signal that Yousef is busy. Privacy is very important to Ray recently. When the commercial breaks start, his older brother might be coming.
All these definitions give Ray a weird awareness in his own little penis, which apparently is a “male reproductive organ of mammals and some reptiles and birds.” Also it has a urethra, whatever that means, and that urethra carries urine from the bladder and releases sperm during intercourse - but - you cannot solve the mystery of the penis and the mystery of the vagina and the mystery of intercourse with a dictionary. No you cannot. These little incomplete sentences hardly tell you anything at all really.
Ray’s brother Yousef, currently laughing at Family Matters, is thirteen and when his friends are over they make jokes about their penises all the time, using words the dictionary does not say mean penis, like:

            bone – “hard connective tissue forming the substance of the skeleton”
            cock, which can mean “a male chicken or rooster (or any bird really)”, and also it’s the part of a lock that causes the lock to lock or unlock when the key turns it and it falls
            dick – a detective, apparently

Yousef and his friends talk about penises a lot. Ray would like to, too, but he doesn’t know what to say about his penis. He knows if he said the things they say they would laugh at him. Basically he pees out of his penis, and there really isn’t much to say about peeing. And he doesn’t even know what words to look up that would describe how his penis makes him feel sometimes. So he is on a quest for authenticity. The pages continue flapping, from penis to intercourse coitus to sex to vagina to ovaries to reproduction to sex back to penis again.

The dictionary tells you that the origin of the word is 1676, perhaps from the French pénis or directly from Latin "penis," earlier "tail.” And the proper plural is penes. And the adjective is penial. But none of that really makes any sense - because his penis is a thing. A noun is a person, place, animal or thing, and his penis is a thing, so it is a noun not an adjective, that just doesn’t make any sense.

And intercourse is interesting to Ray because it doesn’t mention anything that would involve a penis until definition number three: “sexual relations or a sexual coupling, esp. coitus.”

But that’s after number two: an “interchange of thoughts, feelings, etc.”

And the number one definition of intercourse is “dealings or communication between individuals, groups, countries, etc.”

That’s a lot of big things that happen in the world without the involvement of a penis. But with all these jokes Yousef and his friends make about sex and humping (which is the slang word for intercourse he knows), they all act like number three is really the number one definition.  But these people at Random House say otherwise.
And crap - Yousef walks in the room and Ray, leaning on his knees, looming over the big old book, doesn’t even notice until Yousef is there and saying “How’s the homework goin’?”

Ray says “fine, it is going fine, I’m almost done as a matter-of-fact-” hoping his brother doesn’t ask if he’s looking up the word penis, because he doesn’t want to talk about it with him, because one time a while back Ray found a really funny picture in the TV Book, and he really wanted to show it to Yousef, so he ran to Yousef’s room laughing, and he pushed open the door without even knocking - he didn’t know he shouldn’t do that because he always did that, and it was also like three-thirty right after school anyways - it would be different if it was late at night and Yousef would be sleeping or something.

He opened the door and Yousef was busy playing with his penis and Ray only saw it for a second before Yousef jumped and turned and yelled things and it was really weird for a while after that. And they never even talked about it ever. He doesn’t understand why they never talked about it, but Yousef and his friends joke about their penises all the time and that seems to be okay.
Yousef leaves the room. Ray goes back to his homework, because he cannot take all the stress and all the secrets. He quickly finds the word he needed to all along.

            peripheral: “near the surface or outside of; external”, or “concerned with relatively minor, irrelevant, or superficial aspects of the subject in question”, and for the homework question he was given he figures it is the first one judging by the context of the sentence.
And Ray is mad a little and doesn’t really care what this stupid book has to say about penises and intercourse. What does a dictionary even think it is? The definition in the dictionary of dictionary is “a reference book containing an alphabetical list of words, with information given for each word, usually including meaning, pronunciation, and etymology” – but the thing is that it doesn’t tell you at all what penis or any of that other stuff really means.

Brandon Will is a former puppeteer (at a Russian-run Detroit store-front theater) (from which he was subsequently banished from) and moviemaker (of a ridiculously ambitious feature, Dadbot: The Movie). He currently works at a wonderful little independent bookstore and pursues a split-major in fiction writing and screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago. In the future he hopes to be a better man. His work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.