D.L. Stewart web exclusive: What’s that book with all the words in it?

Walking into the newsroom Tuesday morning, I spotted something that stopped me in mid-stride:

A dictionary.

I couldn’t have been more surprised if there had been a kid in front of our building, waving the morning newspaper and shouting “extra, extra … read all about it.”

The dictionary was a Webster’s Third New International edition, opened to pages 1542-1543, which contain the words “northward” through “note.” I have no how or why it got there, but perhaps someone’s desktop had locked and he or she needed to look up the definition of “nosography” (“a description or classification of disease.”)

However or whyever it got there, it was hefty, albeit literate, evidence of how dramatically my profession has changed.

When I started in this business, every desk had a dictionary, a Roget’s Thesaurus and a white pages on it. If we needed to check a fact (yes, we do check facts), there was a research library with a staff to guide us to the proper reference book.

It was a time when typewriters clattered, telephones rang. Shrilly and reporters and editors shouted to each other — or at each other.

But now keyboards click quietly. Cellphones beep or buzz unobtrusively. Reporters and editors message each other. (I’m not sure when “message” became a verb, but I do know that the desk of the editor who handles my column is 21 paces from mine, which is way too far for either of us to walk. So now we communicate in electronic silence.)

Not only was it a noisier time back then, it was a smokier time. Ash trays overflowed on every other desk, and when I got home from work my wife would complain about the cigar smoke odor emanating from my clothes.

Today the entire newspaper property is a no-smoking media group zone, the newsroom is as hushed as the extinct reference library once was and that dictionary is a 2,662-page relic that our younger reporters and interns may or may not know how to use.

I would, of course, be happy to teach them.

But they’d probably prefer to Google the instructions.

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