Dictionary by Hugh Behm-Steinberg


The first time you look up the word dictionary in the dictionary, it isn’t there. There’s dictionally, and there’s dictograph, but no dictionary. You close the dictionary; examine the title. It’s not a great dictionary, it’s obsolete in many ways, but the pages, thin and soft, are one of your pleasures. It’s the one you’ve held onto since you were a kid. The word should be in there (it’s on the cover after all), but it’s not.

So you open it once more, deliberately work your way through the D’s, and where you should find the word dictionary, you find another dictionary, not the picture of a dictionary but an actual dictionary, the thing itself. It’s so tiny, but you grab your magnifying glass and your tweezers. You wonder how much recursivity you’re going to get. Is what lies open on your desk a dictionary of dictionaries of dictionaries, never exactly defining what the word means, only endlessly pointing at ever diminishing versions of itself?

You examine the little dictionary carefully, turning each delicate page with the tweezers, holding the magnifying glass steady with your other hand so the words stay in focus. But the little dictionary has no definitions, only the word dictionary, over and over, page after page, without pause or exceptions.

You close the little dictionary, then the big dictionary too, and put it back in its place on the shelf.

You wonder, when someone finally opens your book, and they ask who you are, whether you’ll be able to say anything other than your own name, over and over again.




Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in Gravel, Joyland, Vestal Review and Psychopomp. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. He is a member of the non-ranked faculty collective bargaining team at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where he edits the journal Eleven Eleven. 

Also by Hugh Behm-Steinberg Eels & Eels #2 / Goodwill / Parade & Bears / Horse


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