Comforting words from my father’s exceptional dictionary

My dad and I on my 40th birthday, May 1997. Four months later I gave him a dictionary for his 87th birthday.

My dad and I on my 40th birthday, May 21 1997.

There’s a line in “Death at a Funeral,” an uproarious British comedy, that turns the movie on its head toward the end. It’s the first sentence of a son’s eulogy for his father: “My father was an exceptional man.”

I have come to the same realization about my own father, Paul McKeever, who died in 2000 at age 90.

My dad was exceptional, I think, largely because he did not try to be.  He lived a very simple, pious life and was a very kind, generous man. He went to college for just one year, forced to withdraw when his father died post-surgery, but remained a lifelong student of the English language.

For my dad, language was a source of amusement — he would chuckle at sportscasters’ use of “intestinal fortitude” when they spoke of an athlete’s courage. He enjoyed creative euphemisms (“five-dollar words”) and delicate descriptions of bodily functions, especially “hydraulic easement” for taking a leak.

dictionary Webster's inscription

My father’s inscription on the dictionary I gave him for his 87th birthday.

Still, it bothered my dad when he heard clunky redundancies such as “revert back.” And he would cringe at snooty titles like “Chief Executive Officer” or “Associate Vice President for Corporate Affairs.”  (His lofty title at the Post Office for 35 years, I believe, was “clerk.”)

As a simple man of few wants, my dad was very hard to buy gifts for. Ah, but anything relating to language was a safe bet  — crossword puzzle books, especially.

And if you love crosswords, you need a good dictionary. So on Sept. 11, 1997, my dad’s 87th birthday, I bought him a hardcover Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

I know he liked it, and the rest of his birthday, because of the inscription I later found inside. In his notoriously horrendous printing, he wrote that I had given him the Webster’s on 9/11/97, “A lovely day in my life!”

He died three years later, Sept. 30, 2000. (As an aside, I’m glad he didn’t live to his 91st birthday on 9/11. He would not have used euphemisms that day.) Some time after his death, I inherited the dictionary. I believe that’s when I first saw the inscription.

I have kept that book within reach ever since, and it is the first reference I go to when I need to be sure of a word’s spelling or a nuance that I might not be aware of.

Just a couple of weeks ago, it saved me from a blunder — in a draft, I had written “confidante” about an old friend who is male. The dictionary saved me by pointing out that the ‘e’ at the end was reserved for females.

I breathed a sigh of relief with that discovery. That’s when I looked at my dad’s inscription yet again, and decided to tell the story of his dictionary, his love of words and how, in no small way, that made him an exceptional man.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in communication, family, Irish Investigations, libraries, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Comforting words from my father’s exceptional dictionary

  1. ksbeth says:

    that is one of my all time fav brit comedies. it just kept getting funnier and funnier as it went. as for your father, how wonderful, and i’m glad he is still rescuing you from using the wrong words – the gift that keeps on giving )


  2. markbialczak says:

    Exceptional men beget exceptional men.

    You have Paul’s smile. What a great 40th birthday picture that is, sir.

    His inscription in the dictionary will remain his present to you for all your days, Jim. Stick a little hidden something in there for Danny, Chuck and Justin, why don’t you?

    Thanks for sharing your dad’s simple and great wisdom with us today.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jim McKeever says:

    Mark, thank you for that nice comment … And that is an awesome idea to stick a memento inside for my three guys to find (not until after I turn 90, though). In connection with our common 1957 birthday year, Chuck pointed out today that 1957 is halfway between 2014 and …. the year 1900! We are getting old, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As an aside….you and your father are beautiful men!

    Any man who can write “A Lovely Day In My Life!” is a man worth knowing. I miss him, just from knowing him from this post. What a beautiful tribute to your father.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. LAMarcom says:

    One of my favorite quotes from my father, “Son, words have meaning. Spend them properly”
    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jim McKeever says:

    Thank you, Lance. Sage advice from your dad as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Learning about your delightful father explains a lot about how you got to be you. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The legacy our dads leave us is beyond all the riches of the kings. The love of language was one of the gifts I inherited from my Dad and my Mom. I loved your Dad’s creative euphemisms such as “hydraulic easement.” Clever.

    I’ve never seen “Death at a Funeral,” but it sounds like one I should put on my list. (My Brit fave was “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”) Thanks for sharing your memories of you dad. He sounds like he was an exceptional man. 😉


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