Monday, December 01, 2014

You’re Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary

I had saved this article and just came across it, You’re probably using the wrong dictionary. James Somers makes the case that the definitions in Webster's early dictionaries are much more interesting than in modern ones. By looking up words you already know, rather than just ones you don't, you can improve your writing.

John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.”

Suppose you sense an opportunity beyond the word “intention.” You read the dictionary’s thesaurian list of synonyms: “intention, intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, goal.” But the dictionary doesn’t let it go at that. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line — how each listed word differs from all the others. Some dictionaries keep themselves trim by just listing synonyms and not going on to make distinctions. You want the first kind, in which you are not just getting a list of words; you are being told the differences in their hues, as if you were looking at the stripes in an awning, each of a subtly different green.

I do not have this first kind of dictionary. In fact I would have never thought to use a dictionary the way McPhee uses his, and the simple reason is that I’ve never had a dictionary worth using that way. If you were to look up the word “intention” in my dictionary here’s all you would see: “a thing intended; an aim or plan.” No, I don’t think I’ll be punching up my prose with that.

I didn't know the name John McPhee but it turns out his book, Annals of the Former World has been in my reading queue (and on my shelf) for a number of years. Somers goes on at length about finding that McPhee used Webster's and giving numerous examples and then instructions about installing the 1913 edition of Webster's dictionary on your mac (so you'll actually use it, like with Command-Control-D). He also has instructions for installing on iPhones, Android, Chrome and Kindle.

I followed his instructions but later he listed alternatives that provide nicer formatting. Get the installer package from convert-websters and just run that. You might want to open the preferences in to reorder the dictionaries by dragging and dropping them. If you ever want to delete it (the result is just 54MB) it's in ~/Library/Dictionaries/.

No comments: