You’re probably using the wrong dictionary

by James Somers, May 18, 2014

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.
  • For Android, you can follow these instructions, courtesy of @TheRealPlato.
  • 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.