My First Attempt at Research: Looking It Up in Your Funk and Wagnall’s

My First Attempt at Research:
Looking It Up in Your Funk and Wagnall’s

I want to recommend an excerpt from a highly enjoyable article in Harper’s Magazine by John Crowley, who is describing the Encyclopaedia Britannica and how he used it as a boy.

Easy Chair — From the February 2016 issue

Rule, Britannica By John Crowley

[…] I tried to learn about sex from the E.B. [i.e. Encyclopaedia Britannica] The daring I felt in even looking up the topic in secret filled me with a weird elation and, yes, a kind of heat. The article, though, was entirely devoted to sexual differentiation in various plants and animals, with elaborate tables of X and Y chromosomes. “Reproductive System, Anatomy of” featured an old “transverse section” of a sheep’s prostate and a diagram of a testicle revealing a worm’s nest of seminiferous tubules inside, a view I could not relate to my own or to anything else.

This reminds me of my own boyhood encounters with encyclopedias. Life was different from what we know today and I believe it is difficult for many even to imagine how much things we take for granted have changed. One obvious instance is the use of the word “f**k,” which now can be found even in popular newspapers and magazines, and on the web it is almost everywhere. I still find it too uncomfortable to write it publicly, although I confess I do use it in speech. In its modern use, “f**k” has taken on some rather strange spellings and forms.NOTE

In those days, the word was rarely used and almost never printed, except in adult publications that I couldn’t know about. You didn’t hear the word spoken on radio, TV, or in the movies. I remember coming across it only on, shall I say, special occasions.

The major occasions I would see it was during our Sunday afternoon drives. The Sunday drive was the norm before air conditioning came into wide use and when we lived in the heat of New Mexico, my whole family looked forward to the Sunday afternoon drive. We could roll down all the car windows, my father would “open it up” on the highway, and we could all cool off. One invariable part of the drive was when my father would go through an underpass, located next to Escondida, New Mexico, the next town over.

On the wall of the underpass was written the word “f**k,” and when we approached the underpass I would start to watch for it. My mother was completely appalled and wanted my father to go home a different way but I think he liked seeing it and he always drove through that underpass on the way home. But it is just as possible that he simply liked aggravating my mother and wanted to give his sons a thrill. Sometimes he would drive through so fast that I would miss the word and I would have to wait a whole week before I had the chance to see it again. I think he did that on purpose.

The very first time I saw that word however is quite vivid in my memory. It happened when I was playing in the desert and went to play next to some railroad tracks. Someone had written F**K in capital letters on an old, dried-out trestle, using gum. I found it fascinating and when I got home, I told my mother what I had found and asked what it meant. She looked at me and said that if I EVER said that word again, she would wash my mouth out with soap. So, I never said it in front of her or any adult. To be honest, while the kids cussed constantly, I don’t remember that we used that word so much. The few times you did, you would whisper it and everyone would giggle.

While you could hear lots of adults (including my father) on the street punctuating their speech with plenty of swear words like “shits” and “craps” and “goddamns,” you heard “f**k” very rarely in public. As a result, that particular word held a certain power that we don’t feel today.

I remember that several times afterwards I returned to the railroad trestle to stare at that word as the gum slowly deteriorated in the sun.

Yet, none of that lessened my curiosity in what the word itself meant, and the word led me into my very first foray into what I would later realize was genuine research. Just like John Crowley’s experience with the Britannica, I too was intensely interested in sex and wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

The other boys seemed to know everything about it already and I had learned from experience that it was unwise to look too stupid in front of them. I had already learned that I couldn’t ask my mother. If I asked my brother, I knew he would never let me forget it and he would turn me into a laughing-stock with all of his friends, and I just couldn’t find it in myself to ask my dad. I never considered asking any of the girls I knew. At that time I considered girls a completely separate species. Teachers or librarians? They were hardly recognizable life forms.

And yet, I knew there was an answer and I could even see it and hold it: the font of all knowledge was right in our own home. The Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia. We didn’t have the Brittanica.

Funk & Wagnall'sFrom

My parents got it through a promotion in one of the grocery stores where my father worked. You would sign up and every month or so you could buy a new volume. Our set had been complete for awhile, and I looked upon it as holding all the knowledge in the world. Therefore, the information I wanted had to be in there–the problem was, how could I find it? It was huge! There were 25 volumes!

The only times I had used it before was to look up things I already knew, terms such as “dog” and “cat” where I enjoyed looking at all the different kinds of dogs and cats. This seemed to be a task that was altogether different. How should I start?

I figured that you start by looking up something.

But how? What?

For younger people who may be reading this, they may be puzzled that I did not search the full text of the electronic version of the Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia using a boolean search query. Or why I didn’t use the text and pictures on CD-ROM, DVD, a pen drive or any other hard drive. Or why I didn’t download it from the Internet Archive or Google Books or use a p2p file sharing program such as Bit Torrent. Or why I didn’t buy it for my Kindle, smart phone, tablet, smartWatch, Google Glasses or Oculus Rift. I didn’t do it because none of things existed. One other point may seem rather strange: the fact that I couldn’t do any of that did not bother me in the slightest because all of those things were beyond my imagination. Times are different now and if put in the same situation, I would find it intolerable.

As I confronted that huge Funk and Wagnall’s, I started with the word I knew: f**k. Even before I began, I had serious reservations whether I would find it and this dampened my enthusiasm somewhat, but nevertheless, I thought it was worth a try.

Sure enough, it wasn’t there. That word, that incredible word that everyone treated with such power and awe, turned out to be entirely worthless.

So I turned to another word that I knew:


That word, of course, was there but I was to be disappointed because what I found was hardly exciting. In fact, what I found was decidedly uninteresting, similar to what James Crowley found in the Harper’s article, and certainly not what I wanted. Like him, I too had felt daring and excited when I started, but this was a sad letdown. I wanted much more.

At this point, I do not remember the exact trail of the terminology I followed; I only remember that it took some time. My method was: I would look up something that I thought would be interesting, discover it was uninteresting, but I would find words I did not know and I would look those up. Considering my actions from an adult, librarian vantage-point, I cannot question my method, since it appears I did everything right. I think that my diligence and endurance were actually praiseworthy.

But none of that worked. Every word turned out to be a dead end. Every single one. I remember I gave up a couple of times but something would spur me on and I would once again begin to look for it…. always with no results. I believe there were a couple of reasons why I didn’t give up completely. One was, naturally, a young boy’s normal interest in such matters. But the other was that I knew the encyclopedia we owned held all the knowledge in the world–so the information I wanted absolutely HAD to be in there. Somewhere, it was right in front of me, in that shelf and a half of books!

To say it was frustrating does not begin to describe how I felt. I remember considering whether I should start with volume 1 and slog my way through, but decided that was not an option. What could I do?

There was a boy who was one of my best friends, and our families would have each other over for dinner occasionally. His family had a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and it was twice as big as our set of encyclopedias. I thought I could maybe find what I wanted there when we visited his house, but somehow it never worked out. It would be time for dinner, or my friend wanted to play, or everybody wanted to watch TV, and the TV turned out to be right next to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and I knew that if I picked out a volume somebody would ask what I was looking for.

I couldn’t allow that to happen. Stuck again.

Anyway, it took time to find what I wanted. I don’t remember how long it took but at the time it seemed forever. Looking back, it obviously took days if not weeks, but in the end I did find what I was looking for. It turned out I was right. The information really was there. It was under a word I had never heard of in my life: Coitus. I remember reading the text under that entry and thinking “Oh!”.

Even in my early years however, I displayed a trait that could be considered as either good or bad, but it would continue to dog me throughout the years, and still dogs me to this very day: I couldn’t believe what I had read. As I considered what I had found under “coitus,” it seemed too outrageous to me and I wanted supporting evidence.

Unfortunately, I was to discover that if finding the word “coitus” had been hard, then getting supporting evidence turned out to be impossible. I figured I had gotten everything I could out of that Funk and Wagnall’s that had tormented me for so long and I could safely ignore it, but ignoring the Funk and Wagnall’s meant I would have to look somewhere else. Where? It meant starting all over again, and I still couldn’t ask anybody. I figured that if I told someone my doubts and I was wrong, I would only make myself look more ridiculous than ever!

From the very beginning of what was to be my very first research project, I had my suspicions that adults talked about “it” a lot but used some sort of secret language among themselves that was unknown to me. With this in mind, I began to pay much more attention to what adults said that I had dismissed previously–those times when the adults would laugh uproariously for reasons I couldn’t fathom, or when some adult would say something I didn’t understand, another would say “Wait a second,” make a motion toward me and then all the adults would look at me with strange looks on their faces. Earlier, I had simply dismissed all this as strange, adult stuff, but I began to listen in the hope of getting some of my supporting evidence.

None of that worked very well and it turned out that instead of getting any genuine supporting evidence, I had to settle for what I would later learn was “preponderance of evidence,” which even back then I recognized as a much lower standard. From my own interpretations of what the adults were saying, I decided that the majority of the evidence seemed to lean more in favor of the coitus theory, as opposed to it.

And there the matter lay until I grew older and I finally found the supporting evidence I needed.

NOTE: (See for example A Glossary of 69 F**ks / by Rufus Lodge, Esquire Sep 2, 2014)