A college dropout’s dictionary
I often wonder whether it was boredom or a restless intellectual energy during his exile in Dapitan that drove Jose Rizal to initiate many scribblings that he left unfinished.
Fragments of Rizal’s writings include a Spanish-Tagalog vocabulary completed up to letter “G,” and an English-Tagalog vocabulary that began and ended with letter “A.” In my mind’s eye, the stereotypical philological scholar is James Murray, who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED took 71 years to complete, and continues to add entries from regional English like ours. Murray was photographed in his study reading a book; in the background was a wall of shelves containing thousands of words on slips of paper to be organized alphabetically and also historically, to illustrate their evolution in meaning from their earliest known forms to the present.
In 1989, I was thrilled to know that the compiler of the doorstop book Vicassan’s Pilipino-English Dictionary was still alive and living in Quezon City. I made an appointment to meet Vito Castillo Santos at his home, and was almost bitten by his dog who acted as his doorbell. I was shown into his study that had shelves groaning from the weight of dictionaries of every imaginable size, shape, and language. There were boxes filled with
3 x 5 note cards sharing space on a table with plastic pitchers of water under metal wire pyramids. It seemed Vicassan got his energy from “toning,” the so-called healing technique popularized on the dawn radio show of Johnny Midnight. I was able to look around the room as Santos was on a seemingly interminable phone call.
When the benign-looking man with glasses, a noticeable paunch, and large ears entered the room, I shot the first question: “How did you get into dictionaries?”
He replied: “Well, after my retirement from the Institute of the National Language in 1958, I started collecting words. I had to do everything myself. I typed the entries in 3 x 5 cards and, little by little, the collection grew into boxes of cards, with the entries arranged alphabetically. Around 1967, I put all these data in order and started writing. To make a long story short, my first draft was finished in 1972. It consisted of over 2,200 pages, typed, double-spaced. Later, this grew to 6,100 pages, with over 68,000 main entries.”
What made all this doubly impressive was the fact that Santos dropped out of
second-year architecture at Mapua and never completed a degree.
The real revelation was this: “I was working at the Institute of the National Language. My father, Lope K. Santos, was the director, and of course you know that he formulated the first Filipino grammar, the ‘Balarila ng Wikang Pambansa.’”
After a thoughtful pause, he continued. “Oh, you can write about my relationship with my father. I am an illegitimate child and I’m not ashamed of it. After all, it’s not my fault.
“When I was a boy, I found out that I was named Vito because that was the saint’s name on the calendar on the day I was born. Being anak sa labas, it was suggested that I should be hidden, so I signed my name Vito Casantos until I was in the sixth grade. Much later I had to write a letter to the Civil Service Commission about my change in name, but it was a mistake my mother made. Well, now you know why my dictionary is called Vicassan; that’s the contraction of Vito Castillo Santos… Did you know that my father’s middle name was Canseco with a ‘C’? He changed his middle initial from ‘C’ to ‘K’, and this is why he became Lope K. Santos.”
“I used to be slighted when people would look down on me because I didn’t have a college degree,” Santos added. “I had no title, but I was writing a lot; I even wrote short stories. I wrote a lot but they were potboilers. I could finish these potboilers in one sitting. I have a lot if you want to see them, but I’m not proud of them. My first short story was called ‘Katok sa Pintuan’… Due to my critical look at language and my writing, I realized there was no good Filipino dictionary. I wanted to show all these academics that I could do it even without a college degree.”
Vicassan’s book was my crutch in Pilipino classes from high school to college. Who would have known this landmark work was compiled by a college dropout—an illegitimate son of Lope K. Santos who inflicted his balarila grammar on me and countless students?
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