You’re probably using the wrong dictionary

July 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments

If you value the crafting prose or the study of language then you certainly need to read this post by James Somers; since you are probably using the wrong dictionary.

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.

He then lays out some beautiful examples showing how a dictionary can not only be source of inspiration but also of nuance and character.

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.


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.

Who is the author of this beautiful book of prose that happens to define words as well? None other than Noah Webster; a man who’s name has become synonymous with definition.

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.

“[R]escuing” it from “the clamour of pedantry” imposed by the Brits. Hehe.

Mr. Somers also goes into some detailed instructions for setting up your Mac to use Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828) but I prefer this simple installer from the Convert Webster’s github project. If you want to install it on a Kindle or Mobile device see the Appendix for details.

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