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Using the wrong dictionary (jsomers.net)
635 points by jsomers on May 20, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 138 comments

This piece - beautifully written - reminds me of an old PBS documentary I once saw about how a savory-looking new food offering got flattened and homogenized into something really unappealing as it went through the fast-food commercialization process. So too with words as they populate modern dictionaries with trite and sterile definitions in tow.

A word does not stand still. It can mean one thing in one era and something related but different in another. It can mean one thing in one place and another in a different place where people came to use it differently. It can have a literal meaning, constituting some tangible thing. That meaning can then be applied by analogy or metaphorical usage to some intangible attribute. As it is ported from one time or place to another, it can continue vibrant in its home tongue or it can die and be absorbed by another tongue. Or it can continue in its original tongue, die in its original meaning, and continue vibrant in other meanings. Caesar's ferre or latus (same word, different forms) could mean "to bear" (as in bear a load) or "to bring" in his day and can today have spawned such words as rich and varied as "superlative" (connoting borne or carried above) and "circumference" (connoting "brought around") (see my write-up on this here: http://www.grellas.com/article_word_origins_fero.html). Wycliffe's "knave", or "young boy" as it meant to him in the 14th century, is today a far more sinister character than originally meant. Sinister itself derives from the Latin, meaning left-handed. And so on and so on, almost literally ad infinitum.

So how does the compiler of a language go about capturing what it all means when putting together a dictionary? First, by deciding to be either prescriptive (stating how words ought to be used) or descriptive (stating simply how words are used). Second, by deciding how much to bring in of the historic origin or etymology of a word. Third, by deciding how much to illustrate its usage with examples from existing literature. And, of course, by deciding how to formulate the meaning or the various meanings of the word as used in then-current usage or at times in historic usage (anachronistic words).

As pointed out in this piece, modern dictionaries tend to do this task superficially, by committee. They are serviceable. They are helpful. The are easily accessible. Thus, they have utility. But they rarely go beneath the surface of a word's meaning and, in so limiting themselves, even leave the false impression that words mean only what the flattened, homogenized, "fast-food" version says they mean - that is, something not very interesting. As the author of this piece points out, when a dictionary is so done by committee, it misses much of what is valuable in words.

But there is a reason too for the fast-food character of the modern dictionary and that is that people have limited ability or patience to want to dive into the deeper or subtler meanings of words. That takes hard work and, while a joy to the one coming at it from a specialty angle, is off-putting to many modern readers or even writers. People want something fast and to the point, without too much nuance.

For those who value the joy of words, and who seek to write with some measure of nuance and precision, there is (for English) the old Webster's (as noted by the author), there is Samuel Johnson, and of course there is the OED (a stupendous achievement with huge emphasis on word origins, illustrative usage, and subtle shades of meaning). There are also major (and very thick) Latin and Greek dictionaries that go deeper into many of the words from which the English words were derived. So too are there medieval dictionaries capturing the English of Chaucer and Wycliffe, as well as dictionaries of Old English, which bring out the Germanic origins of many of the words that predated a good number of those we use today. But of course this brings us back to the point that massive complexity this way lies. Word meanings can have a priceless fascination just because their study can take you into many times and many eras and many languages. For those inclined to dive deeply, and to work hard in seeking to excel in expressing themselves, the resources are there for the taking. Just don't expect an easy path.

The author of this piece does a splendid job of suggesting the joy of words as one uses a solid dictionary to help bring them to life. This is an excellent read and one to be highly recommended. The rest (the hard work) is up to you.

The first line of your second paragraph reminds me of a passage from TS Eliot's Burt Norton:

... Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still. ...

Your comment reminded me of wordnik which is an attempt to capture English as it is used. I first heard of it in a TED talk by dictionary editor Erin McKean.


My secret weapon for writing English prose is the "Kenkyusha Dictionary of English Collocations".

A collocation dictionary gives you words that commonly go together with another word. In particular, you find the right verb to go with a given noun, or descriptive adjectives to further chacterize that noun. It's helpful for brainstorming. It also helps a lot (but not only!) if English is not your first language. In my view, a collocations dictionary is more useful than a thesaurus.

The Kenkyusha dictionary includes Japanese translations (unreadable to me), but the collocations are given in English. It's very comprehensive, more so than any other list of collocations I've seen.

It's hard to find as a book, but a digital edition can be found on a well-known Swedish sharing platform.

It's not hard to find as a book, Amazon Japan has it http://www.amazon.co.jp/新編-英和活用大辞典―英語を書くための38万例-市川-繁治郎/dp/47...

There is a look-inside feature that includes a few pages that shows what it is about

Wow - that was a fantastic(al) and fun read - and then ends up with a cool bit of hacking to actually fetch and add a dictionary from 1913 as the default on your 'puter. The perfect HN post, I say!

I agree. I read the post on my Xubuntu machine and was too lazy to open my Mac, so I opened XFCE's Dictionary application and did a search for "flash". Lo and behold, the same definitions appeared. The heading says "The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 (gcide)" which I learned is derived from the Webster's 1913 edition and contains further improvements. That was kind of exciting and for at least a little while I'll keep the dictionary open or add it to my panel. :-)

I suspect that some may be concerned about referring to such an old tome. Usage does change after all over the years.

I recalled David Foster Wallace's effusive praise [1] for Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage [2] which seems to have similar characteristics to the Webster, but I doubt there's such a convenient digital integration available for this.

If only the world were perfect! ;)

[1] http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/DFW_present_tense.html

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Garners-Modern-American-Usage-Garner-e...

And you'd still be using the wrong one if you use Webster's. The correct (inasmuch as anything can be correct in this world - correct for me!) choice is the compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is quite possibly the most glorious duology of volumes of infinitesimally minuscule type ever published, from Aa to Zyxst. Many happy childhood evenings of eyestrain and ebullient exclamations of sesquipedalian rhapsody.

It even comes with a magnifying glass.

For the uninitiated, the special thing about the Oxford English Dictionary is that it is not really a dictionary in the sense you are probably used to. It has definitions but they are not the focus. The heart of the OED is the etymologies - they are incredibly thorough and they are accompanied by citations (example sentences) that show not just typical usage of the word like modern dictionaries, or a particularly distinguished use like Webster's, but a series of historical examples beginning with (often) the earliest known written use of a word and tracing its evolution to the present day.

There's something special about the printed OED but the online version is far easier to use, and also up to date. It is an expensive annual subscription ($250 or so) but you may have free access via your local library.

A free alternative for the etymologically inclined is the excellent Online Etymology Dictionary at http://etymonline.com/

I will spend many hours on that site, thanks.

Etymonline has let me down a few times; I use wiktionary as a useful adjunct (though it is pretty hit-and-miss).

Yep, it is super expensive. I wonder why didn't they go route of free personal access and paid organization plans.

As the author of a recent article[0] about the joys of that very edition of that very dictionary, enjoyed at that very time of life, that contained a nasty swipe at Websters, I must say that reading this beautiful encomium to the latter work made me regret my hasty dismissal and want to go back and add a footnote.

[0] http://lee-phillips.org/literallyEgregious/

I hate to point this out, but given the theme of your essay, you might want to fix the phrase "you get it's first known appearance in the language" by removing a certain troublesome apostrophe.

Thank you for noticing that embarrassing typo.

Does anyone know of an electronic version of the complete OED? I know I could subscribe to the website, but I prefer an offline version.

I'd love to be able to add an old version to my Mac dictionary app.

I think it is still available on CD. I am not sure how feasible it would be to import that into Dictionary.app.

If you have the CD-Rom, you can try to use http://njw.name/oed2dict which is a set of scripts that convert the full Oxford English Dictionary v2 (CDROM version 3.0) into the jargon and DICT file formats. (This is based on a comment from "a well-known Swedish sharing platform", where a compressed DICT format of the Oxford English Dictionary could be available)

Agreed. However, my inner philistine says that it is the Official Scrabble Dictionary that is the dictionary of choice. Every word and every spelling listed but with no meanings, explanations, etymology or anything else given.

In my days of being competent at Scrabble there were so many words that our Scrabble playing group knew as legitimate words yet we had no idea at all what they meant. Half of the two letter words were like that and anything else with unusual 'Q, J and Z combinations'.

I like using a word beyond my normal inner-dictionary that is the right one, in the right place. There is a feeling that 'yes! I used that word...!'. Such words could have been heard on Radio 4 and never really made it to the inner-dictionary, yet, one day, the need arises for that word and it fits perfectly. It is so nice when that happens.

We always play a scrabble rule where you can challenge someone to give a definition of the word they "claim" is real ... and if the definition is not in the chosen dictionary, then they are not allowed it ... even if it's a real word.

That's a pretty lame rule if I may say so myself. Kinda of violates the whole spirit of the game. You have to use real words that you know how to spell. Requiring a definition, especially one that matches some chosen dictionary, opens up a lot of weird challenge problems. Definitions are much more fluid than spelling (although spellings can change over time as well). Spelling and whether or not a word is "real" tend to be much more cut and dry.

>Kinda of violates the whole spirit of the game.

I would say the spirit of the game is a competition based on vocabulary. Surely memorising character sequences with no understanding is completely against that ideal?

I agree however, that requiring an exact definition would be a bad way to do it. The point is to understand, not to memorise, so they should only need to give an approximate definition. For casual games, I think agreement of the players is fine, and for competitive play, you can have a judge to decide if their definition is close enough.

Pretty sure they don't check for definition knowledge in competitive play though? Probably because it is so problematic.

Not a big worry. My guess is for unusual words, meaning variance is pretty low because their use (what fixes the meaning) is low too. If you find out the meaning the player attaches to the word doesn't match the dictionary, you can be pretty much certain he is trying to bullshit it (assuming the rule is in effect, it wouldn't be a problem under the usual rules).

I think the rule just adds some more challenge to the game.

That is the standard way for serious players, and it has to be an official Scrabble dictionary. If it's not real you loser your turn. If it is real the challenger loses his turn. The game is boring without challenges.

Read the comment you're responding to again, carefully.

> I like using a word beyond my normal inner-dictionary that is the right one, in the right place.

This is often referred to as le mot juste.

On the subject of OED (and of assembling dictionaries):

"A Minor case: OED contributions from a prison cell" http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/02/william-minor/

I think it also comes (came?) in a large multi-volume encyclopaedia like set. The small print with magnifying glass version was a cost and space efficient alternative.

I have a '70's (?) printing of the first edition in 12 volumes with about four volumes of supplements. I prefer it because (a) I am getting old and I can read it without a microscope, and (b) it provides much better ammunition if I'm ever confronted with a room full of internet pedants. Each volume is fairly hefty, and two or three would crush the life out of even the most robust twit.

[Self-declared interest: I'm an ex-employee of Pearson Education, the publisher of Longman Dictionaries, and I used to work on the dictionaries team.]

The author may appreciate English learners' dictionaries as a possible source of greater lexicographic stimulation, such as Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English or Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. These are aimed at learners of English at an advanced level and therefore can be quite insightful for natives too.

On the negative side most dictionaries in this space compete for having definitions expressed as simply as possible. But on the positive they outline significant language nuance, enumerating a word's usage in to multiple fine-grained senses. An entry such as 'go' will have 30-40 different senses of the raw word itself, and then as many again in various phrasal verbs and idiomatic usage.

Synonyms and antonyms are a common and significant feature in learners' dictionaries too.

Sure, the examples aren't from Shakespeare either but they are usually modern language, derived from vast language corpora of real world language use.

Edit: I am of course in British English mode; whilst the dictionaries I referred to do accommodate American variants of usage and spelling they are primarily British English titles. There are exclusively American titles such as Longman Advanced American Dictionary and Oxford Advanced American Dictionary which would suit American readers too.

Despite sounding like a salesman I have no interest in either company or publication - just the language!

Hah! That reminded me, I had a Longman Pocket English Dictionary when I was in Primary school that I absolutely adored. I used to read through random pages to learn words :)

One of my favorite works of literature is the preamble to A Dictionary of the English Language, by one of the first lexicographers, Samuel Johnson. Perhaps I'm so fond of it because I can beat his prose over the head of prescriptivists and Francophones in an argument, but whatever the reason, I find it beautiful and captivating.

Here's a passage (joined from two paragraphs) describing the futility of prescribing language or fixing it with a work as diminutive as his dictionary:

    When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from
    century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a
    thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who
    being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words
    and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his
    language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to
    change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and
    With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues
    of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their
    vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and
    subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are
    equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its
I suppose early lexicographers had to become a master of language themselves - or persuade themselves it was so. If they didn't, how could they presuppose to describe the entirety of their language in such a tome?

The full text of the preface can be found here: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/preface.html

sub·lu·nar·y - of, relating to, or characteristic of the terrestrial world. Webster would be ashamed!

Situated beneath the moon; hence, of or pertaining to this world; terrestrial; earthly.

All things sublunary are subject to change. --Dryden.

All sublunary comforts imitate the changeableness, as well as feel the influence, of the planet they are under. --South.

I like the new dictionary I just added to mac.

The dict protocol, and dict.org in particular, provides easy access to Webster's 1913 as well as other dictionaries.

I normally use Webster's 1913 from the command line, since I usually have a terminal in front of me. I keep this in my .zshrc:

    function dict () {
        if [[ $1 == (d|m) ]]; then
                curl dict://dict.org/$1:$2 | $PAGER
            echo 'Unknown command. Use (d)efine or (m)atch.'
That allows me to issue queries such as `dict d example` to define "example", or `dict m exampel` to figure out how "example" ought to be spelled.

dict protocol? As in http and FTP? That's so cool! Are there any more protocols to play around with?

Of course not every URI scheme corresponds one-to-one to a layer 7 protocol, but there's plenty of interesting stuff in this list nonetheless [1].

[1] http://www.w3.org/wiki/UriSchemes

dict ftps gopher http https imap imaps ldap ldaps pop3 pop3s rtmp rtsp sftp smtp smtps telnet tftp

And if you want to go explore, you could continue with everything (not all are plain text!) in: /etc/services ...

Well, that list is things curl supports.

I know I'm going to come across as un-romantic or anti-intellectual, but I don't like the "literary" writing style this seeks to emulate. The quotes provided in the article from McPhee all seem over-written to me -- topically, I suppose I would call them fustian.

I like prose which adheres to the "as simple as possible, but no simpler" rule. I'm well aware this is a matter of taste.

Do you really think, in the quote about canoeing, that "sport" would have said remotely the same thing as "diversion of field"? I completely agree with you that writing should be as simple as it can (George Orwell's essay[1] on that is wonderful), but the feeling and depth different words evoke is the difference between technical writing and prose[2].

1. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

2. This is not to disparage technical writing. It is a craft in itself, but it, intentionally, is not given life.

Actually, that very example struck me as an instance of style over substance. Football, cricket, baseball, sprinting, javelin throwing: these are all diversions of the field, for sure. But canoeing? Have both McPhee and Somers forgotten that canoeing is done in a canoe, and canoes don't work very well on grass?

Yes, indeed, "a diversion of the field" sounds nice. The words have a pleasant ring to them. But they are, as it happens, completely inapplicable to canoeing.

Perhaps McPhee or Somers or both would consider this mere pedantry, worthy only of technical writing. I dare to suggest that their heroes Webster and Johnson would disagree.

I have to say that the paragraph about the canoeing strikes me as wrongheaded in another respect. "Simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain", writes McPhee. Wait, what? Simply? In what hierarchy of value or complexity or whatever it is that "simply" indicates a lack of does getting efficiently from A to B rank above a "rite of oneness" with the terrain in between?

Furthermore, let's return to Webster's definition of "fustian", which he defines as "a kind of writing in which high-sounding words are used, above the dignity of the thoughts or subject". The subject, in this case, is the fact that people take canoeing trips for reasons other than efficient travel. Fair enough; worth pointing out, in its context; but it's a pretty good example of a subject that doesn't demand "high-sounding words".

(I have to say that I'm not entirely convinced that what determines the appropriateness of high-sounding words is the dignity of the thoughts or subject. In -- for instance -- a religious ritual, a national celebration, or a musical performance, high-sounding words might be appropriate even for rather unexciting thoughts. Make it "the dignity of the thoughts, subject, and occasion" and I'd agree. So maybe there's something about McPhee's piece that makes elevated language appropriate even for its mundane topic. But I would prefer the elevation of the language not to compromise its meaning, which it has in this case.)

Field and Stream magazine doesn't have many footballs in it, yet the diversions it covers have a strong overlap with a diversion like canoeing.

Obviously what one prefers when reading is a highly subjective thing, but I can't even fathom the problem you have with "simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain". Having spent a lot of time in wilderness, I can't think of many phrases that more appropriately describe the experience. It can be a near religious experience. shrug

Field and Stream. Canoeing is a diversion, for sure, but not a diversion of the field.

The problem I have with simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain" is precisely with the word "simply". What McPhee wrote suggests that a "rite of oneness with certain terrain" is somehow lesser, simpler, less rich, than getting efficiently from A to B. Whereas, in fact, it's quite the opposite.

In other words: I'm agreeing with you that it can be a near religious experience, and I'm saying that for that very reason McPhee's description seems to me to be tone-deaf. "X has become simply Y", to me, suggests that X used to be something more interesting but has (so to speak) come down in the world.

I think you are misreading the "simply" as "simple". Rather, the connotation is one of an experience distilled down to its essence, not interrupted or besmirched by other, unimportant vulgarities like "the need to get from point A to point B". In fact, I would go so far as to say you are reading it exactly opposite of its intended meaning and are arguing that it should say what it actually does say.

On the Field and Stream, see my other comment nearby that has the full definition from the dictionary used. If you've ever seen Field and Stream magazine, you know the fields it talks about are not football fields, which is an incredibly narrow definition of the word 'field'.

I never intended to suggest that "fields" or "field" has to refer to football fields (or to any sort of sports field) and I have no idea how what I wrote gave you the impression that I meant something so absurdly specific. But canoeing doesn't, and couldn't, take place on any sort of field, and that (rather than anything to do with football fields specifically) is why I think "diversion of the field" an excessively inexact way to describe it, nice though it sounds.

Looking at the other comment you mention, I suppose perhaps you infer from Webster's inclusion of fishing as a "diversion of the field" that "of the field" for him means something very, very broad like "outdoors". I suppose it's possible that it does; but if so I can only say that whatever it may have meant for Webster, it certainly doesn't mean that for me, and I doubt it could mean it for any reader of McPhee who was actually paying attention to the meaning of his words rather than their sound.

You may well be right about what McPhee is getting at with the word "simply". I don't find myself able to read it that way. Especially if I assume for the sake of argument that Somers's interpretation of what McPhee says about "sport" is right -- i.e., that McPhee wanted something that means more or less the same as "sport" but sounds better. For me, though perhaps not for everyone, sport goes in an entirely different category from quasi-religious experience-distilled-down-to-its-essence.

(This has been an interesting conversation, so please don't think I'm arguing just for argument's sake.)

"Football, cricket, baseball, sprinting, javelin throwing: these are all diversions of the field, for sure."

There's where I got it from. One of the Webster's definitions for field is An open space; an extent; an expanse, and that, for whatever reason, was the connotation I read into the passage (probably because I was thinking of the expanses of the Boundary Waters as I read it).

I wonder if the introduction to the passage is what soured the passage for you. If, instead of hearing about how the author built the passage, with a set of connotation applicable to that, you had started with the passage as written, if that would changed things. It shows the power that a turn of phrase can have, that's for sure.

If I did not know what sport meant, and looked it up and saw "diversion of field", I'd still have no idea what it meant. I'd think maybe sport had something to do with electromagnetism.

But that's not the entire definition[1] nor the entire context. Taking any phrase out of context can be confusing.

1. "Diversion of the field, as fowling, hunting, fishing, racing, games, and the like, esp. when money is staked."

Yes, same here. My favorite rule in writing is "kill your darlings". If what you're saying isn't interesting when said plainly, perhaps vocabulary isn't the problem.

In all writing?

Personally I adore a poetic turn of phrase. Something about the syllabary, the variance in tone and metre, causes resonances in my brain that bely understanding. Words that can usher in melancholy or elation as a lover tempting their beloved. Make love to your darlings, not war?

"Horses for courses". Generally online I dumb down, narrow my vocabulary, often Americanize. But not all prose is simply about transmission of the informational content of the words themselves.

TL;DR (all darlings dead) I like poetry.

This article began with John McPhee, who begins many great things. Somers' article is the most practical single bit of writing advice I've seen in a long time (it even includes software you can install).

If you're not familiar with McPhee, you're missing out. He's one of the greatest English-language essayists of the 20th century. My favorite is "Coming into the Country" (on Alaska), but the Hacker News set in general may prefer "The Control of Nature".

"The Control of Nature" was fascinating. I read it right around the time of Hurricane Katrina, which adds a new resonance to McPhee's discussion of the Army Corps of Engineers trying to protect New Orleans from floods.

Oranges. http://www.amazon.com/Oranges-John-McPhee/dp/0374512973

Absolutely fascinating -- it's just about oranges.

One of my favorites, which I read as a teenager in the 70s, was "The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed", about a startup that tried to commercialize a hybrid airship/airfoil craft. It provided the first description I'd read of using a computer approximation to solve a real-world optimization problem (in this case, finding the shape that gave the best combination of volume for helium and aerodynamic lift with the least drag).

"The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor" is excellent as well:


While I appreciate the author's love of language, and I also enjoy his examples, he's being a bit disingenuous when he acts mystified and offended about why dictionaries these days aren't written like those a hundred years ago.

It's obvious. Dictionaries these days are used to help literate people learning a new language (of which there are many more than 150 years ago) rather than aspiring playwrights. Comparing a "flash" with "eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew" is fanciful, not what an immigrant trying to decode an instruction manual needs.

Not true. I'm an immigrant. I'm still learning English. If I need to decode an instruction manual, I can just use an English-to-My-Native-Language dictionary or even a translator. However, the real challenge is to intuitively understand the subtleties of English, to enjoy reading English writings, and to know what right words to use when writing or speaking. To use the word that I just learned in the article, an English learner needs to get the pathos of English writings. I have no problem using a dictionary to look up words in a poem, yet I have very little idea why a poem in English is beautiful. Ironically, if the poem is translated into my native language, I can often appreciate it, even though so much is lost in translation.

If you're trying to decipher a poem, well that's a different purpose than just trying to find the meaning of something. That doesn't mean that the post you are replying to is wrong. Most people using a dictionary are not trying to interpret the deeper meaning of poetry.

Poetry is just an example. What really matters is to "feel" in a different language, be it reading poems, enjoying novels, laughing at jokes, watching movies, having an interesting conversation, interpreting other people's emotion...

I figured someone who speaks X and wants to begin learning English would use an X-English / English-X dictionary.

English has a vast vocabulary full of similar words, each having subtle differences and nuances. How is one to decide which word to use in a particular context? For example, check out:


> I figured someone who speaks X and wants to begin learning English would use an X-English / English-X dictionary.

At first. You should switch to X-X dictionary as soon as you can, far before it becomes natural and easy to use X-X dictionary. X-English/English-X dictionaries encourage people to continue "thinking" in their language, while successfully learning a new language would absolutely require embracing new ways of forming phrases, building sentences, etc.

Source: English is my 3rd language, I'm on my 5th now.

Two things have improved my English more than anything: deciding to read out loud whenever I'm alone reading an English text, and discovering that I can immediately look up any English word with a three finger tap on OS X.

If the dictionary had been English–Swedish, I think I would have been more prone to see English as an obstacle, as something that I need to translate to Swedish in order to comprehend the text. Instead, I constantly find myself thinking in English whenever I read or write English, which I never did before.

Are you really trying to claim that there are many more new languages than 150 years ago? Or are you saying that there are many more literate people trying to learn a new language than 150 years ago?

The first claim is clearly absurd; only a handful of new languages have arisen or been invented in the last 150 years.

The second claim is best described by the wikipedian "citation needed". Whether it's true probably depends on what part of the world you're restricting yourself to. The US? The West? The world?

Yeah, I'm restricting myself to North America, which is presumably what the article's also about (since he talks about the history of the American dictionary).

No, I don't have any citations or anything, but I take it as self-evident that there's more people in North America for whom English is a second or third language than there were 150 years ago.

http://www.census.gov/how/infographics/foreign_born.html shows that the foreign-born population of the US oscillated around 13-14% through the 2nd half of the 19th century, dipped below 5% in 1970, and had not quite made it back up to 13% by the 2010 census. I actually hadn't realized how close we were to matching the earlier peak, until I looked it up.

Foreign-born is one thing, but I have an intuitive sense that immigrants to the US came from European countries during the world-war era, and now they're mainly coming from India, China, and South America, whose native languages are much more different from English than Spanish, British English, French, Italian, or German.

You're probably using the right thesaurus. The default on Apple devices is the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, which is great at conveying little shades of meaning. I'm always delighted to find a "Word Notes" entry by an author I like. Try "bourgeois" for Zadie Smith or "feckless" for David Foster Wallace.

(Here's a list of all the word notes by author: http://lasersoptional.com/2012/08/21/it-was-wonderful-marvel...)

In addition, that blog post is another incredibly well written example, in case anyone has been left in the mood.

"So back in ought-whenever-it-was, the general consensus was that print thesauruses were dead, dead, dead, and that nobody would ever buy them again, but, leaving that aside, Oxford being Oxford and having to publish thesauruses much in the same way that birds gotta fly and fish gotta swim, we had to create a new one anyway."

This is the place where all the words live and the writing’s no good.

The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at dictionary.com: they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.

This is the article that's complaining about where all the words live and the editing and writing's no good. (Perhaps this is intentional or tongue in cheek?)

EDIT: “the clamour of pedantry” Could be the motto for the 21st century tech industry.

> The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.

That sentence thrills me. Superb. The author seems to care more about color than efficiency. I do, too. Maybe you value efficiency over color.

I don't generally appreciate attempts at flowery prose, but that sentence is excellent. It expresses something that a simpler formulation cannot. It's actually a fairly concise way to communicate that specific idea.

I'm curious: what specifically do you find wrong with that excerpt?


That is true. (Good lord! Why didn't I see that? Dammit.)

I assume he meant, "The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not, like, singularly bad," which would be intentional, at least. But still, that hoarks up the paragraph.

I'm not sure I see the irony in a simple editing mistake.

Dictionaries are all kinds of good, clean fun. From http://machaut.uchicago.edu/?resource=Webster%27s&word=potat..., potato:

In 1913, "Potato (?), n.; pl. Potatoes (#). [Sp. patata potato, batata sweet potato, from the native American name (probably batata) in Hayti.] (Bot.) (a) A plant (Solanum tuberosum) of the Nightshade family, and its esculent farinaceous tuber, of which there are numerous varieties used for food...."

In 1828, "POTATO, n. A plant and esculent root of the genus Solanum, a native of America. The root of this plant, which is usually called potatoe, constitutes one of the cheapest and most nourishing species of vegetable food; it is the principal food of the poor in some countries, and has often contributed to prevent famine. It was introduced into the British dominions by Sir Walter Raleigh or other adventurers in the 16th century; but is came slowly into use, and at this day is not much cultivated and used in some countries of Europe. In the British dominions and in the United States, it has proved one of the greatest blessings bestowed on man by the Creator."

...which may go a certain distance towards explaining why the modern default dictionaries are not Webster's.

This message brought to you by the word "esculent", because it's lunch time.

This is beautiful! Anyone who has such feeling for English at its most alive is someone I want to read more of. It's an exemplary piece of intellectual detective work, too, with a satisfying reward.

I think the article should be called "Using the Right Dictionary". It is far too good to commingle with the shite genre that is internet bait titles.

Stephen King seems to disagree: "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."

This is a bit like the Java philosophy. It works, it's arguably perfect for writing huge, plot-driven, King-like novels, but using this rule diminishes the author's ability to use interesting constructs in the same way Java prevents the programmer from using interesting constructs. You could say "if you have to look the keyword up in a textbook, it's wrong". This applies not only to coYoneda but also to goroutine.

It's more-or-less obvious that it was a great rule for Stephen King, but it's not clear if it would have helped David Foster Wallace write this:

'How did you know I was interested in Byzantine erotica?'

'You seem persistently to confuse me with someone who merely hangs out a shingle with the word Conversationalist on it, and this operation with a fly-by-night one strung together with chewing gum and twine. You think I have no support staff? Researchers at my beck? You think we don't delve full-bore into the psyches of those for whom we've made appointments to converse? You don't think this fully accredited limited partnership would have an interest in obtaining data on what informs and stimulates our conversees?

'I know only one person who'd ever use full-bore in casual conversation.'

'There is nothing casual about a conversation with a professional conversationalist. We delve. We obtain, and then some. Young sir.'

Damnit, I have a sinking feeling you just added a substantial amount to my reading list.

The book is Infinite Jest; it's the unrivaled best piece of writing I've ever put my eyes on.

I thought it was great, one of the best books I've ever read. Actually, in large part due to the language.

But I know a lot of people who tried it and were turned off; they seemed to get put by this "showboating".

Don't forget the fact that the book, even in paperback, is big enough to severely wound somebody if you throw it at their head. And something like a third of its bulk is footnotes. Lengthy footnotes that can be fill most of a page. There is a certain joy to making your way through a dense labyrinth of a story like this, but you have to put a lot of energy into the journey...

Okay, now I'm definitely sold. I'm a sucker for footnotes in a story.

For footnotes, have to mention House of Leaves (Danielewski) as well, although this definitely falls more into the gimmicky "hold the book up to the mirror" camp than the eloquence of IJ.

I've heard this advice from other sources and I always assumed they meant that it is the wrong word if and only if you weren't already aware of the word. I use a thesaurus when the perfect word is just on the tip of my tongue but it won't come out.

Stephen King is not the ultimate authority on prose style, nor, I believe, would he presume so to present himself.

He wrote about himself and writing in a book titled On Writing:


So I guess if he makes statements that sound like writing advice he probably means them as writing advice.

(None of which is really a counter to something as absolute as 'ultimate authority', but maybe you could elaborate a little)

I've read On Writing, though not recently. The strong impression I have is that his advice was intended as just that -- advice, rather than binding pronouncements.

That is, King in On Writing seems essentially to be saying "Here's what worked for me. Maybe it will work for you, too," rather than trying to be Moses on the flank of Mount Sinai.

And, for any wordsmith, much of his advice has value! Certainly there's no doubt of that. On the other hand, King is a writer of horror fiction, and I am not. This, at the very least, suggests that not all of his advice will be applicable to my purpose, a consideration which seemed absent from the comment originating this thread.

If you assume King is clear and intentional in his writing (which of course he is), there is a lot of nuance available in "you have to hunt for".

Writing covers a topic large enough to encompass the act of programming, news articles, and poetry. Assuming the author intended it in the widest possible sense and expected it to apply to every situation does a disservice to both them and yourself.

I think he means, "Any word you have to look for in a word-book is the wrong word."

Basic English. Improving communication since 1930. Er, that is, Making better exchange from 1930.

Easy exception:

I need a word that pretty much carries definition-X of word-Y, but cannot be word-Y, because I just used word-Y in the last sentence.

As a writer and editor, I come across this exception a dozen times a day. You aren't looking to spice anything up, you simply need a purely functional synonym.

This is my primary use of a thesaurus, too. Ideally, a good writer should be able to naturally remember synonyms without referencing anything, but unfortunately my memory isn't quite as good as I wish it to be.

That sounds to me like it's talking about looking up obscure words that are related to the one you were going to use. Trying to get a better feel for a word with related phrasings in understandable speech is another thing altogether. Look at the definition for fustian, Webster's "An inflated style of writing; a kind of writing in which high-sounding words are used, above the dignity of the thoughts or subject" is actually simpler than invoking a term such as 'pretentious'. Taking "a feeling that comes suddenly to mind" or "Pertaining to, or situated under, the northern constellation called the Bear." gives you seeds of metaphor, not a stale and misused thesaurus word.

You have just hit upon the problem with using old dictionaries. Pretentious has not had either of those meanings in a very long time, and though the semantic drift of a word may originate in misuse or metaphor, once the new meaning is established in common use, it becomes the meaning of the word. I suppose I could use "silly" to mean "blessed" or "censure" to mean "evaluate" in writing today, but I wouldn't expect many readers to understand those words used that way. What, pray, makes language change preserved by the accident of print in the 18th century more valid than the language change that has occurred since?

It's difficult to make blanket pronouncements like this because there are so many different types of writing. News is different from fiction is different from technical manuals etc.

I'm reasonably with King, and I must say the suggestion that I use a 1913 dictionary to add floweriness to my prose makes me feel slightly queasy because I mostly write news and marketing material and I'm usually striving for clarity.

I prefer the notion that if you write a line, then look at it and think "that's the most beautiful, perfect, artful thing I've ever written," then it's probably overworked and you should cross it out and try again.

I think you just have to find a balance (depending on the audience you're writing for). There are times I write something that's clearly too flowery, and then I modify or remove a few of the words to make it sound a bit plainer, but while still retaining some of the original flair. And there are occasional times where I make something sound slightly more flowery.

As a teenager I collected dictionaries for this very reason,it was exciting because each word became more than the sum of its letters but a treasure hunt that would last hours. Halfway through the article I thought he should just use an old edition of Merriam Webster or an Oxford Dictionary that predates the early 80s only to find that he does mention it. My word toolbox now consists of:

* Old Dictionary , Oxford and sometimes Websters

* Roget's Thesaurus

* Online etymology tool

* English Wordnet

* Oxford's Modern English Usage by Fowler ( 2nd or 3rd edition ) - it's a hoot to read.

* Samuel Johnson's Dictionary - if you want a nice bedside chuckle.

There are many ways of slicing and dicing this data set to fit a particular writing style( e.g like Stephens King's no adverb policy,); If the data is ingested in a tree form , searching for word replacements based on Part Of Speech, sound or syllables , mitre is not that hard.

Using these techniques doesn't necessarily make you a better writer but it sure does make it more fun!

He lists the http://machaut.uchicago.edu/websters website as a way to read the 1913 Webster's dictionary. As soon as I saw that I started looking for a plugin to put in my Firefox search bar. Turns out they offer a plugin right on the site: http://machaut.uchicago.edu/plugins

I clicked on this thinking it was going to tell me what substitute I should be using for /usr/dict/words. The payoff I got was much better.

For the wordsmiths out there, you can visit Websters actual house at Greenfield Village in Dearborn Michigan, along with a number of other historic buildings. Note: I didn't say "home" because that's not where the house - nor any of these buildings - originally was. However, they are well preserved and all in one place. Mr Ford's idea of a history museum was rather unique.

I enjoyed the article, but I think it implicitly encourages elitism through reliance on an old authority. Not all writing styles or writers will benefit from mining a well-written dictionary of flowery language from many decades ago. What about the various dialects of English that have sprung up since then? We should be borrowing new words as well as old.

This is a beautiful essay, thank you.

What is the literal meaning of "a diversion of the field"? Is "diversion" used in the sense of "that which diverts, and makes mirth; pastime; amusement", and "of the field" in the sense of "pertaining to a large grassy open area where one might kick a ball around"? If so, it seems a bit of a stretch to apply the phrase to an activity that takes place on water. (Though Webster does also give a broader meaning for field: "An unresticted or favorable opportunity for action, operation, or achievement; province; room.")

        I applied myself to the perusal of our writers; and
        noting whatever might be of use to ascertain or
        illustrate any word or phrase, accumulated in time
        the materials of a dictionary. --Johnson. [0]
To use the dictionary files he has hosted on S3 [1] on Linux, GoldenDict [2] works well.

[0] Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913

[1] https://s3.amazonaws.com/jsomers/dictionary.zip

[2] http://goldendict.org/

The "dict" program [0] (with the default server) also pulls definitions from 1913 Webster (via The Collaborative International Dictionary of English [1]). It's my go-to dictionary, due to the ease of accessibility via the command line.

[0] http://sourceforge.net/projects/dict/

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_International_Di...

Courtesy of Wikipedia, you can get the 1913 Webster's itself, as well, from


The file is dictd01_dict-web1913-1.4-pre.tar.gz.

I'm a little shocked that anyone would not be using a proper dictionary (be that Webster's or Oxford). I always aptitude install at least "dict-gcide" and "dict-moby-thesaurus" -- and usually also "dict-devil" as well.

Clearly not everyone do -- great way to bring attention to proper tools for writing.

However, a small aside -- the phrasing: "In fact [the definitions are] so much better that to use another dictionary is to keep yourself forever at arm’s length from the actual language." is somewhat unfortunate. Arm's length is exactly the distance one should be from one's dictionary of choice (be that an actual book, or accessed via a keyboard/screen) ... ;-)

If anyone feels the need for a little balance against the flourish of this text, I can recommend reading an essay or two by George Orwell, for example:

"Politics and the English Language" http://www.gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200151.txt

This article is superb and beautiful. Just go read it. I love it when procrastination is repaid.

If anyone wants to install the Webster's Revised 1913 Dictionary as a Chrome Search Engine, you can find it listed on the Mycroft project [0]. Just click on "Webster's 1913 Dictionary" and set the Keyword field to whatever you'd like to type into the Chrome address bar to activate the search engine.

[0]: http://mycroftproject.com/search-engines.html?name=webster

I probably enjoyed this post more than any other I've read so far this year, and would have enjoyed it every bit as much even if it had not mentioned one of my favorite authors of non-fiction. Whether we have actually lost something or not I can't say, but at least it seems certain there are no more Noah Websters, just as there are no more Bertrand Russels, etc.

I use etymonline.com for similar purpose. Searching for the etymology of words gives you something akin to older dictionaries.

Love this post! Does anyone know about a german dictionary of such a quality that s/he could recommend? I really enjoy disecting words/sentences/speech and to find those pin-point-descriptive paraphrases/expressions :-) (pls do not judge my english, I r no native speaker :O)

    Arc"tic, a. Etym: [OE. artik, OF. artique, F. arctique, L. arcticus,
    fr. Gr. ursus bear, Skr.
    Defn: Pertaining to, or situated under, the northern constellation
    called the Bear; northern; frigid; as, the arctic pole, circle,
    region, ocean; an arctic expedition, night, temperature.
    Note: The arctic circle is a lesser circle, parallel to the equator,
    23� 28' from the north pole. This and the antarctic circle are called
    the polar circles, and between these and the poles lie the frigid
    zones. See Zone.

When I was studying writing and composition in college (well before computerized dictionaries and word processors were common), all of my professors had strong opinions about dictionaries, and made specific recommendations about which ones to choose. I still have and sometimes use my Webster's New World Dictionary 2nd College Edition from back then.

I'm really glad to see someone writing up about how to not just use the dictionary built into your software, but to evaluate and it change it to suit.

I don't really think modern dictionaries are that bad. In fact I don't find them bad at all. When I prepared for SAT and had to go through all the SAT words, I did it with joy because I could form endless hilarious and crazy imaginations in my head just using the solid definitions provided by normal dictionaries. This article seems too much.

The reason for the difference between Webster and Oxford is pretty simple if you do a little studying on the history of language documentation between the 18th and 20th Centuries.

Probably the most important, seminal dictionary was from Samuel Johnson. The two-volume Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. It was an incomplete catalogue, full of opinion and jokes (see the definition of "oats" at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Dictionary_of_the_English_Lan...). But it was a big deal at the time, and very much in the same vein of Diderot's Encyclopedia -- a great philosophical idea born of the Enlightenment, but certainly incomplete and not necessarily easy to distribute.

When Webster started in 1806, Samuel Johnson was the best precedent he had to work off of. So it served as a major influence for his format and approach. Webster's goal, of course, was to provide an adequate account of American English to provide additional national identity to a growing nation.

The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, had an entirely separate goal. They wanted an objective academic reference to fully catalogue the functional meaning, language of origin, and first documented use of each word.

So what happened between 1805 and 1878, when James Murray met with the Oxford University Press to set the groundwork for what would become the OED? Well, over the 19th Century, comparative philology became a big deal academically. This coincided significantly with the increase of nationalist movements in Europe. As vulgar Bibles had established the linguistic boundaries of major mercantile polities between the 14th and 17th Centuries, a combination of historic and scientific research into those languages helped to formulate an intellectual sense of nationality for different states during this time. In other words, the political situation in Europe created a market for a more objective, historical tool for cataloguing language, and not a companion for generating flowery prose. And you can see that as this happened about 70 years after Webster started, the emphasis on science over editorial had amplified over time, as scientific academies and universities increased their influence in their respective nation states.

So to say that something like the OED, which has an amazing history (really, look up The Professor and the Madman), is devoid of soul just because it adequately fulfills its historical, scientific, and political purposes is nothing short of melodramatic. I actually think it's a good thing dictionaries don't editorialize too much.

Each speaker already injects bias into each definition they write simply based on their local dialect and how they individually evaluate word meaning. Why make this bias worse by letting them crack wise when you're just trying to look up a simple word?

Oh my god it ends with a way to get the 1913 Webster's into Dictionary on a Mac. Installing that so hard right now. Because most of the time when I pop open Dictionary it's to look for the same kind of inspiration he describes John McPhee as finding.

http://tinyurl.com/ddddict I created a short link in case using someone else's computer.

I would love to see a homebrew package to install this dictionary on a Mac (or better yet, for it to be the default in OSX 10.10).

The "js" in the URL led me to believe this article was about Javascript and its object notation ^^

That was beautiful. I am very glad that I clicked on that link. (I need to study that dictionary...)

beautiful piece of writing. it reminds me of why chambers was my favourite dictionary when i was growing up; the definitions had a definite sense of style and individuality to them.

Isn't this a function traditionally fulfilled by a Thesaurus?

Thesaurus will give you synonyms but won't provide any detail about the nuanced differences between their semantics. The article specifically talks about why Webster's unabridged dicts are different from thesauri...

That's why you should instead use a "dictionary of synonyms, which will provide those details.

You mean a collocation dictionary? I've never heard of a dictionary of synonyms and a quick Google search didn't really come up with anything. Could you point me in the direction of a publication? Thanks!

search Amazon.com for "dictionary of synonyms".

If you're fluent in the language you're writing in, a combination of a thesaurus and a web search to check that words fit in where you think works well, in my experience.

What a weird essay. The author doesn't want a dictionary, but a thesaurus, which gives you alternate ways of communicating your concept.

Thought this had to do with dictionaries in CS.

Can we please stop linking to websites with meta viewport tags that set the maximum scale to 1.0?


"New Oxford American Dictionary is the TLDR of dictionaries. There are others out there if you have extra time to look up a word."

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