the blog.

DocWriter: the typewriter that sends its keystrokes in real time to a Google Doc

For years I’ve wanted a writing machine that would combine the best parts of a typewriter and a word processor. After months of tinkering, my friend Ben Gross and I just finished building one. We call it the DocWriter. It’s a typewriter that sends its keystrokes in real time to a Google Doc.

The beauty of a typewriter is that it propels you through a piece of writing. You can’t tinker with phrases, so you get used to laying down paragraphs. Your mind, relieved from the micromechanics of language, applies itself to structure, to the building of sections and scenes and arguments. When you’re done you end up with something whole, even if it’s imperfect: a draft that reads from start to finish and that you can hold in your hands.

A word processor, by contrast, turns revision into a kind of play. This is true not just for the fine wordwork that comes right before publication, but for the big stuff, too, like when you want to move sections around, or see what a story looks like without a side character. Doing this kind of thing on a typewriter would be a nightmare — to say nothing of the simple fact that your words will have to be digitized at some point and it’s just not practical to scan them or type them up off a sheet of paper.

The idea behind the DocWriter is to be a bridge between these tools so that each serves its purpose: the typewriter, to create the building blocks of a piece of writing, and the word processor, to make the most of them.

How we built it

The DocWriter is actually pretty simple: we took a Brother SX-4000 electronic typewriter and spied on its keyboard switch matrix by soldering a few wires onto the main circuit board; we ran those to a Raspberry Pi 3, which runs a C program that reverse engineers the signals; we pipe this data over ssh to a computer program running in the cloud; that program maps the signals to keystrokes and runs a headless web browser that types the keys into a new Google Doc.

From the user’s perspective, you’re just using a typewriter. The Raspberry Pi is hidden inside it (the blue box in the image above), and it draws power from the typewriter itself, so there’s no extra cord. When you turn on the typewriter, it boots the Pi, which connects itself to your WiFi network, and runs the program that listens for keystrokes and pipes them to the cloud. You know that the DocWriter is ready once you get an email from Google Docs saying that the machine has shared a new document with you.

We’re indebted to numist, who turned the same model typewriter into a teletype using software much more sophisticated than ours. That work made our project seem doable, and gave us many clues about the kinds of problems we’d encounter along the way.

There were, indeed, many problems: we had a surprisingly hard time getting the case off the typewriter when we first bought it; by unlatching the keyboard, we inadvertently triggered a condition where the motor would endlessly grind up against the case, and nearly convinced ourselves we’d broken the machine; the early versions of our controller code erroneously piped data to the typewriter, causing all kinds of weird behavior; we built the whole setup three times, first on an Arduino and then on a Raspberry Pi Zero, before settling on the Pi 3; we had a bad connection on a wire that caused some keys to fail; we wrote elaborate code to compensate for noise on the lines, before realizing that we could use pull-up resistors to more or less eliminate it entirely; we spent nearly a full day just installing a headless web browser that worked; and we had to rewrite our main control code about a dozen times.

In the end, though, the setup is elegant: along with wires for power and ground, we had to solder just 16 connections onto the pins controlling the keyboard switch matrix on the typewriter’s circuit board. The rest is software, most of which does exactly what you’d expect. The hardest code to write was the controller to read the raw signals from the typewriter. But we got it down to something with nearly perfect behavior that’s also pretty minimal (especially when you ignore special cases for the Shift key):

#include <wiringPi.h>
#include <stdio.h>
int main(void) {
  setbuf(stdout, NULL);

  int scanPins[] = {5, 22, 10, 11, 26, 27, 28, 29};
  int signalPins[] = {13, 12, 3, 2, 0, 7, 24, 23};
  int i = 0;
  int j = 0;
  for (i=0; i<8; i++) {
    pinMode(scanPins[i], INPUT);
    pinMode(signalPins[i], INPUT);
    pullUpDnControl(scanPins[i], PUD_UP);
    pullUpDnControl(signalPins[i], PUD_UP);
  int keyDown[8][8] = {
    {0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0},
    {0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0},
    {0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0},
    {0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0},
    {0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0},
    {0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0},
    {0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0},
    {0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0}

  int lastI;
  int lastJ;
  int sameKeyCount = 0;
  for (;;) {
    for (i=0; i<8; i++) {
      for (j=0; j<8; j++) {
        if (digitalRead(scanPins[i]) == LOW && digitalRead(signalPins[j]) == LOW) {
          (i == lastI && j == lastJ) ? sameKeyCount++ : sameKeyCount = 0;

          if (sameKeyCount > 50 && keyDown[i][j] <= 0) {
            printf("%d,%d\n", i, j);
            keyDown[i][j] = 50;
          lastI = i;
          lastJ = j;
        if (digitalRead(scanPins[i]) == LOW && digitalRead(signalPins[j]) == HIGH) {
          keyDown[i][j] = (keyDown[i][j] - 1);

A Ruby program in the cloud takes the output of this program (raw indexes like “6,0” for spacebar, or “5,3” for “j”) and maps them to strings, which it sends to a Google Doc using the watir gem for driving headless web browsers.

Can I get one?

For now this is just a one-off project. But if you think you’d want to build one yourself, or buy one, email me at [email protected]

Most book clubs are doing it wrong

The standard way to run a book club is to have everybody finish the book before meeting to talk about it. You have one meeting per book. The discussion goes on for one or two hours before it runs out of gas, and then the group picks the next book, and you agree to meet in another month or six weeks.

You would never run a class this way, because it practically minimizes the value that each participant gets from being in the group. The problem is that there’s no time to cash in on anyone else’s insights. If someone says something in the meeting that reframes how you think about the book — they suggest that Holden is lying, or that Kinbote wrote Canto IV; they tell you to read Portrait first, so you can understand Stephen’s double bind; they claim that Offred’s tale is a series of transcripts, not journal entries — well, now it’s too late, because you’ve finished reading the book and you’re probably never going back to it.

What makes a class useful is precisely that it lets you compare notes with your classmates along the way, to float your working theories about a book and see how they sound to others. It’s not a retrospective, or not merely one — you’re equipping yourself for the rest of the reading.

This is true not just of frameworks or theories or whatever but of little nuts-and-bolts stuff, too, like when someone points out a reference that you missed or helps you savor some language that you blew right by the first time. That kind of thing is especially valuable when you’re reading a difficult book.

My book club started four years ago to read Infinite Jest. There were five or six of us; we had all tried, and failed, to read the book on our own. We met every week and read about fifty pages for each meeting — five or six hours’ worth for a book that dense. If you were out of town, you tried to call or Skype in, and you were forgiven for missing a few sessions, so long as you more or less kept up with the reading.

Since then we’ve run just about continuously, every week, week in, week out, for four years. We’ve read other hard books, and easy ones too, and no matter what, we’ve always split the reading into at least more than one meeting, because isn’t that after all how you make use of those other minds? Book club, for us, isn’t about reading the same book; it’s about reading a book together.

We try to keep the reading to about the amount you can do in a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. Weekly book club has become a fixture in our schedules, an institution like family dinner, though it’s not uncommon for someone to skip a whole book, say if they’re traveling a lot or right after they’ve started a new job. The idea is to make book club less an obligation than a sort of pleasant presence in our lives, this thing that’s always there.

Some books don’t really demand so much attention, and our book-talk during those sessions quickly devolves into banter. But most of the time the discussion lasts a full hour before it runs out of steam, naturally, the way almost all meetings seem to.

That’s another reason to break a book into pieces: better to have too little to fit into a session than too much; god forbid you read something complex and demanding — do you really want to spend three hours in the unpacking, or to have the session break down before the unpacking’s done? And what are the odds that you’ll even remember most of the book by the time six weeks pass?

Good books are almost fractally deep: you find whole worlds wherever you look, and no matter how far in you zoom. Breaking a book into multiple meetings makes the most of this fact. It gives you space to dwell — on a page, even on a single word — without feeling like you’re wasting anyone’s time. No: that’s what a book club is for, not to sum up what you’ve read but to live inside it.

I don’t know why more people don’t run book clubs this way. I think part of it is that they’ve never tried; the very concept of a book club seems to imply a one-book-per-meeting structure. Others hear the idea of meeting weekly and think who has the time?

I would say that anyone who loves books has the time. A book club run in the standard way isn’t efficient or practical — it’s just a good opportunity wasted.

Speed matters: Why working quickly is more important than it seems

The obvious benefit to working quickly is that you’ll finish more stuff per unit time. But there’s more to it than that. If you work quickly, the cost of doing something new will seem lower in your mind. So you’ll be inclined to do more.

The converse is true, too. If every time you write a blog post it takes you six months, and you’re sitting around your apartment on a Sunday afternoon thinking of stuff to do, you’re probably not going to think of starting a blog post, because it’ll feel too expensive.

What’s worse, because you blog slowly, you’re liable to continue blogging slowly—simply because the only way to learn to do something fast is by doing it lots of times.

This is true of any to-do list that gets worked off too slowly. A malaise creeps into it. You keep adding items that you never cross off. If that happens enough, you might one day stop putting stuff onto the list.

* * *

I’ve noticed that if I respond to people’s emails quickly, they send me more emails. The sender learns to expect a response, and that expectation spurs them to write. That is, speed itself draws emails out of them, because the projected cost of the exchange in their mind is low. They know they’ll get something for their effort. It’ll happen so fast they can already taste it.

It’s now well known on the web that slow server response times drive users away. A slow website feels broken. It frustrates the goer’s desire. Probably it deprives them of some dopaminergic reward.

Google famously prioritized speed as a feature. They realized that if search is fast, you’re more likely to search. The reason is that it encourages you to try stuff, get feedback, and try again. When a thought occurs to you, you know Google is already there. There is no delay between thought and action, no opportunity to lose the impulse to find something out. The projected cost of googling is nil. It comes to feel like an extension of your own mind.

It is a truism, too, in workplaces, that faster employees get assigned more work. Of course they do. Humans are lazy. They want to preserve calories. And it’s exhausting merely thinking about giving work to someone slow. When you’re thinking about giving work to someone slow, you run through the likely quagmire in your head; you visualize days of halting progress. You imagine a resource—this slow person—tied up for awhile. It’s wearisome, even in the thinking. Whereas the fast teammate—well, their time feels cheap, in the sense that you can give them something and know they’ll be available again soon. You aren’t “using them up” by giving them work. So you route as much as you can through the fast people. It’s ironic: your company’s most valuable resources—because they finish things quickly—are the easiest to consume.

The general rule seems to be: systems which eat items quickly are fed more items. Slow systems starve.

Two more quick examples. What’s true of individual people turns out also to be true of whole organizations. If customers find out that you take two months to frame photos, they’ll go to another frame shop. If contributors discover that you’re slow to merge pull requests, they’ll stop contributing. Unresponsive systems are sad. They’re like buildings grown over with moss. They’re a kind of memento mori. People would rather be reminded of life. They’ll leave for places that get back to them quickly.

Even now, I’m working in a text editor whose undo feature, for whatever reason, has suddenly become slow. It’s killing me. It disinclines me, for one thing, from undoing stuff. But it’s also probably subtly changing the way I work. I feel like I can’t rely on undo. So if I want to delete something but think I might want it later, I’m copying it to the bottom of the file, like it’s the 1980s. All this because undo is so slow that it might as well not exist. Undo, when it’s fast, is an incredible feature; at any moment, you can dip into the past, borrow something, and zip back. But now it feels like a dead end.

Part of the activation energy required to start any task comes from the picture you get in your head when you imagine doing it. It may not be that going for a run is actually costly; but if it feels costly, if the picture in your head looks like a slog, then you will need a bigger expenditure of will to lace up.

Slowness seems to make a special contribution to this picture in our heads. Time is especially valuable. So as we learn that a task is slow, an especial cost accrues to it. Whenever we think of doing the task again, we see how expensive it is, and bail.

That’s why speed matters.

* * *

The prescription must be that if there’s something you want to do a lot of and get good at—like write, or fix bugs—you should try to do it faster.

That doesn’t mean be sloppy. But it does mean, push yourself to go faster than you think is healthy. That’s because the task will come to cost less in your mind; it’ll have a lower activation energy. So you’ll do it more. And as you do it more (as long as you’re doing it deliberately), you’ll get better. Eventually you’ll be both fast and good.

Being fast is fun. If you’re a fast writer, you’ll constantly be playing with new ideas. You won’t be bogged down in a single dread effort. And because your to-do list gets worked off, you’ll always be thinking of more stuff to add to it. With more drafts in the works, more of the world will pop alive. You will feel flexible and capable and practiced so that when something demanding and long arrives on your desk, you won’t back down afraid.

Now, as a disclaimer, I should remind you of the rule that anyone writing a blog post advising against X is himself the worst Xer there is. At work, I have a history of painful languished projects, and I usually have the most overdue assignments of anyone on the team. As for writing, well, I have been working on this little blog post, on and off, no joke, for six years.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 6.03.14 PM

How I reverse-engineered Google Docs to play back any document’s keystrokes

If you’ve ever typed anything into a Google Doc, you can now play it back as if it were a movie — like traveling through time to look over your own shoulder as you write.

This is possible because every document written in Google Docs since about May 2010 has a revision history that tracks every change, by every user, with timestamps accurate to the microsecond; these histories are available to anyone with “Edit” permissions; and I have written a piece of software that can find, decode, and rebuild the history for any given document.

The details are here.

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary

The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.

Indeed, if you look up those particular words in the dictionary that comes with your computer — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian:

example /igˈzampəl/, n. a thing characteristic of its kind or illustrating a general rule.

sport /spôrt/, n. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

magic /ˈmajik/, n. the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

Here, words are boiled to their essence. But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture. Which trains you to think of the dictionary as a utility, not a quarry of good things, not a place you’d go to explore and savor.

Worse, the words themselves take on the character of their definitions: they are likewise reduced. A delightful word like “fustian” — delightful because of what it means, because of the way it looks and sounds, because it is unusual in regular speech but not so effete as to be unusable, is described, efficiently, as “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” Not only is this definition (as we’ll see in a minute) simplistic and basically wrong, it’s just not in the same class, English-wise, as “fustian.” The language is tin-eared and uninspired. It’s criminal: 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 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.

John McPhee’s secret weapon

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.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.

The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.

But where?

“Your destination is the dictionary,” he writes:

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.

But somehow for McPhee, the dictionary — the dictionary! — was the fount of fine prose, the first place he’d go to filch a phrase, to steal fire from the gods. So for instance he’d have an idea of something he wanted to say:

I grew up in canoes on northern lakes. Thirty years later, I was trying to choose a word or words that would explain why anyone in a modern nation would choose to go a long distance by canoe. I was damned if I was going to call it a sport, but nothing else occurred.

And he’d go, Well, “sport” is kind of clunky, it’s kind of humdrum. Maybe I can do better. And he’d look up “sport,” and instead of the even more hopelessly banal “an activity involving physical exertion and skill” that I’d get out of my dictionary, he’d discover this lovely chip of prose: “2. A diversion of the field.” Thus he could write:

His professed criteria were to take it easy, see some wildlife, and travel light with his bark canoes — nothing more — and one could not help but lean his way… Travel by canoe is not a necessity, and will nevermore be the most efficient way to get from one region to another, or even from one lake to another — anywhere. A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.

A book where you can enter “sport” and end up with “a diversion of the field” — this is in fact the opposite of what I’d known a dictionary to be. This is a book that transmutes plain words into language that’s finer and more vivid and sometimes more rare. No wonder McPhee wrote with it by his side. No wonder he looked up words he knew, versus words he didn’t, in a ratio of “at least ninety-nine to one.”

Unfortunately, he never comes out and says exactly which dictionary he’s getting all this juice out of. But I was desperate to find it. What was this secret book, this dictionary so rich and alive that one of my favorite writers was using it to make heroic improvements to his writing?

I did a little sleuthing. It wasn’t so hard with the examples McPhee gives, and Google. He says, for instance, that in three years of research for a book about Alaska he’d forgotten to look up the word Arctic. He said that his dictionary gave him this: “Pertaining to, or situated under, the northern constellation called the Bear.”

And that turned out to be enough to find it.

The invention of American English

Noah Webster is not the best-known of the Founding Fathers but he has been called “the father of American scholarship and education.” There’s actually this great history of how he almost singlehandedly invented the very idea of American English, defining the native tongue of the new republic, “rescuing” it from “the clamour of pedantry” imposed by the Brits.

He developed a book, the Blue Backed Speller, which was meant to be something of a complete linguistic education for young American kids, teaching them in easy increments how to read, spell, and pronounce words, and bringing them up on a balanced diet of great writing. It succeeded. It was actually the most popular book of its time; by 1890 it had sold 60 million copies.

But that wasn’t even Webster’s most ambitious project. Certainly it’s not what he became known for. In 1807, he started writing a dictionary, which he called, boldly, An American Dictionary of the English Language. He wanted it to be comprehensive, authoritative. Think of that: a man sits down, aiming to capture his language whole.

Dictionaries today are not written this way. In fact it’d be strange even to say that they’re written. They are built by a large team, less a work of art than of engineering. When you read an entry you don’t get the sense that a person labored at his desk, alone, trying to put the essence of that word into words. That is, you don’t get a sense, the way you do from a good novel, that there was another mind as alive as yours on the other side of the page.

Webster’s dictionary took him 26 years to finish. It ended up having 70,000 words. He wrote it all himself, including the etymologies, which required that he learn 28 languages, including Old English, Gothic, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Welsh, Russian, Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit. He was plagued by debt to fund the project; he had to mortgage his home.

In his own lifetime the dictionary sold poorly and got little recognition. Today, of course, his name is so synonymous with even the idea of a dictionary that Webster is actually a genericized trademark in the U.S., so that other dictionaries whose contents bear no relation to Webster’s original can use the name just to have the “Webster” brand rub off on them. [1]

* * *

It makes sense: there was, and is, something remarkable about his 1828 dictionary, and the editions that followed in its line (the New and Revised 1847, the Unabridged 1864, the International 1890 and 1900, the New International 1909, the 1913, etc.). You can see why it became cliché to start a speech with “Webster’s defines X as…”: with his dictionary the definition that followed was actually likely to lend gravitas to your remarks, to sound so good, in fact, that it’d beat anything you could come up with on your own.

Take a simple word, like “flash.” In all the dictionaries I’ve ever known, I would have never looked up that word. I’d’ve had no reason to — I already knew what it meant. But go look up “flash” in Webster’s (the edition I’m using is the 1913). The first thing you’ll notice is that the example sentences don’t sound like they came out of a DMV training manual (“the lights started flashing”) — they come from Milton and Shakespeare and Tennyson (“A thought flashed through me, which I clothed in act”).

You’ll find a sense of the word that is somehow more evocative than any you’ve seen. “2. To convey as by a flash… as, to flash a message along the wires; to flash conviction on the mind.” In the juxtaposition of those two examples — a message transmitted by wires; a feeling that comes suddenly to mind — is a beautiful analogy, worth dwelling on, and savoring. Listen to that phrase: “to flash conviction on the mind.” This is in a dictionary, for God’s sake.

And, toward the bottom of the entry, as McPhee promised, is a usage note, explaining the fine differences in meaning between words in the penumbra of “flash”:

… Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.

Did you see that last clause? “To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.” I’m not sure why you won’t find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won’t. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: “glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface <glistening wet sidewalk>.”

Who decided that the American public couldn’t handle “a soft and fitful luster”? I can’t help but think something has been lost. “A soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface” doesn’t just sound worse, it actually describes the phenomenon with less precision. In particular it misses the shimmeriness, the micro movement and action, “the fitful luster,” of, for example, an eye full of tears — which is by the way far more intense and interesting an image than “a wet sidewalk.”

It’s as if someone decided that dictionaries these days had to sound like they were written by a Xerox machine, not a person, certainly not a person with a poet’s ear, a man capable of high and mighty English, who set out to write the secular American equivalent of the King James Bible and pulled it off.

Words worth using

I don’t want you to conclude that it’s just a matter of aesthetics. Yes, Webster’s definitions are prettier. But they are also better. In fact they’re so much better that to use another dictionary is to keep yourself forever at arm’s length from the actual language.

Recall that the New Oxford, for the word “fustian,” gives “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” I said earlier that that wasn’t even really correct. Here, then, is Webster’s definition: “An inflated style of writing; a kind of writing in which high-sounding words are used, above the dignity of the thoughts or subject; bombast.” Do you see the difference? What makes fustian fustian is not just that the language is pompous — it’s that this pomposity is above the dignity of the thoughts or subject. It’s using fancy language where fancy language isn’t called for.

It’s a subtle difference, but that’s the whole point: English is an awfully subtle instrument. A dictionary that ignores these little shades is dangerous; in fact in those cases it’s worse than useless. It’s misleading, deflating. It divests those words of their worth and purpose.

Take “pathos.” This is one of those words I used to keep looking up because I kept forgetting what it meant — and every time I’d go to the dictionary I would get this terse, limiting definition: “a quality that evokes pity or sadness.” Not much there to grab a hold of. I’d wonder, Is that really all there is to pathos? It had always seemed a grander word than that. But this was the dictionary, and whatever it declared was final.

Final, that is, until I discovered Webster:

pathos /ˈpāˌTHäs/, n. 1. The quality or character of those emotions, traits, or experiences which are personal, and therefore restricted and evanescent; transitory and idiosyncratic dispositions or feelings as distinguished from those which are universal and deep-seated in character; — opposed to ethos.

It continued. 2. That quality or property of anything which touches the feelings or excites emotions and passions, esp., that which awakens tender emotions, such as pity, sorrow, and the like; contagious warmth of feeling, action, or expression; pathetic quality; as, the pathos of a picture, of a poem, or of a cry.

Dear god! How did I not know about this dictionary? How could you even call yourself a dictionary if all you give for “pathos” is “a quality that evokes pity or sadness”? Webster’s definition is so much fuller, so much closer to felt experience.

Notice, too, how much less certain the Webster definition seems about itself, even though it’s more complete — as if to remind you that the word came first, that the word isn’t defined by its definition here, in this humble dictionary, that definitions grasp, tentatively, at words, but that what words really are is this haze and halo of associations and evocations, a little networked cloud of uses and contexts.

What I mean is that with its blunt authority the New Oxford definition of “pathos” — “a quality that evokes pity or sadness” — shuts down the conversation, it shuts down your thinking about the word, while the Webster’s version gets your wheels turning: it seems so much more provisional — “that which awakens tender emotions, such as pity, sorrow, and the like; contagious warmth of feeling, action, or expression; pathetic quality; as, the pathos of a picture, of a poem, or of a cry” — and therefore alive.

Most important, it describes a word worth using: a mere six letters that have come to stand for something huge, for a complex meta-emotion with mythic roots. Such is the power of actual English.

The pleasure of finding things out

I could go on forever listing examples. I could say, “Look up example, magic, sport. Look up arduous, huge, chauvinistic, venal, pell-mell, raiment, sue, smarting, stereotype. Look up the word word, and look, and up. Look up every word you used today.” Indeed that’s what motivated this post: I’d been using Webster’s dictionary for about a year; I kept looking words up, first there, then in whatever modern dictionary was closest to hand, and seeing this awful difference, evidence of a crime that kept piling up in my mind, the guilt building: so many people were getting this wrong impression about words, every day, so many times a day.

There’s an amazing thing that happens when you start using the right dictionary. Knowing that it’s there for you, you start looking up more words, including words you already know. And you develop an affection for even those, the plainest most everyday words, because you see them treated with the same respect awarded to the rare ones, the high-sounding ones.

Which is to say you get a feeling about English that Calvin once got with his pet tiger on a day of fresh-fallen snow: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes. Let’s go exploring!”

Appendix: How to start using Webster’s 1913 dictionary on your Mac, iPhone, Android, and Kindle

The closest thing you can get to a plain-text, easily hackable, free, out-of-copyright version of the dictionary McPhee probably used is Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828).

You’ll never use it, though, unless it’s built in to your computer and available easily on your phone and e-reader. For instance I wanted it so that whenever I typed a word into Spotlight, I’d get a Webster’s definition:


I even wanted it so that when I highlighted a word in my browser, and hit Cmd + Ctrl + D, I’d see a definition from Webster’s:


Here’s how I got that to work:

  • Download this archive from S3.
  • Unzip it and launch the DictUnifier app.
  • Drag the stardict-dictd-web1913-2.4.2.tar.bz2 file, still compressed, onto that app’s little drag-and-drop area. It might take a few seconds before the conversion process starts. Once it does, it’ll take about 30 minutes to finish.
  • The dictionary will now be available in your Dictionary app. (If not, you may need to enable it in the app’s Preferences pane, as here.) But its formatting may look a little off. If the lines are squished together, open ~/Library/Dictionaries/dictd_www.dict.org_web1913.dictionary/Contents/DefaultStyle.css in a text editor and add the following directive:
p { line-height: 0.7em }

Restart the Dictionary app to confirm that the CSS was updated correctly. (You might also try bumping the margin-top and margin-bottom values in the div.y block to 0.7em, from 0.5em. And some folks have said that 1em works better than 0.7em.)

  • If you want to always see Webster’s results by default, go to the Dictionary app’s preferences and drag Webster’s to the top of the list.
  • If you’re on OS X Lion, follow these instructions so that Dictionary results appear first in Spotlight searches.
  • If you’re unhappy with the formatting of the entries in Dictionary, here are alternative instructions for setting up Webster’s on OS X that may give better results. (Here, too.)
  • To get it on your iPhone, get the Stardict-compatible Dictionary app. On its installation screen, go to the “Network” tab and type, exactly, into the URL bar. (Alternatively, just download this free app by Aaron Parks.)
  • For Android, you can follow these instructions, courtesy of @TheRealPlato.
  • To add the dictionary as a search engine on Chrome, follow these instructions, courtesy of @chancelionheart.
  • And finally, follow these instructions to get the dictionary on your Kindle.


[1] Note that the modern Merriam-Webster, even though it does derive directly from Webster’s original, has been revised so much that it’s actually less similar, content-wise, than some of the impostors. It, too, is one of the “wrong” dictionaries.