Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Rediscovering the dictionary

with 95 comments

John McPhee

I’ve never owned a dictionary. Well, that isn’t precisely true. Looking around my bookshelves now, I can see all kinds of specialized dictionaries without leaving my chair, from Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary to Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. About a year ago, moreover, I was lucky enough to acquire not just a dictionary, but the dictionary. As much as I love my Compact Oxford English Dictionary, however, it isn’t exactly made for everyday use: the volumes are bulky, the print is too small to read without a magnifying glass, and it’s easy to get lost in it for hours when you’re just trying to look up one word. And as far as a conventional desk dictionary is concerned, I haven’t used one in a long time. My vocabulary is more than adequate for the kind of fiction I’m writing, and whenever I have to check a definition just to be on the safe side, there are plenty of online resources that I can consult with ease. So although I have plenty of other reference books, I just never saw the need for Webster’s.

But I was wrong. Or at least I’m strongly reconsidering my position after reading the latest in John McPhee’s wonderful series of essays on the writing life in The New Yorker. The most recent installment covers a lot of ground—it contains invaluable advice on how to write a rough draft, which McPhee says you should approach as if it were a letter to your mother, and includes a fascinating digression on the history of the magazine’s copy editors—but the real meat of the piece lies here:

With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.

The emphasis is mine, but McPhee’s case speaks for itself. He explains, for instance, that he wrote the sentence “The reflection of the sun races through the trees and shoots forth light from the water” after seeing “to shoot forth light” in the dictionary definition of “sparkle.” And after struggling to find a way to describe canoeing, he looked up the definition of the word “sport” and found: “A diversion in the field.” Hence:

A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion in the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.

A page from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

As far as thesauruses go, McPhee calls them “useful things” in their proper place: “The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill.” In my own case, I tend to use a thesaurus most often in the rewrite, when I’m drilling down more deeply into the meaning of each sentence, and when issues of variety and rhythm start to take greater precedence. I rely mostly on the thesaurus function in Word and on an occasional trip to the excellent free thesauruses available online, where the hyperlinks allow me to skip more easily from one possible synonym to another. And although I recently found myself tempted by a copy of Roget’s at my local thrift store, I expect that I’ll stick to my current routine. (Incidentally, I’ve found that I tend to read thesauruses most obsessively when I’m trying to figure out the title for a novel, which is an exhausting process that needs all the help it can get—I vividly remember going to Thesaurus.com repeatedly on my phone while trying to find a title for what eventually became City of Exiles.)

But McPhee has sold me on the dictionary. After briefly weighing the possibility of picking up McPhee’s own Webster’s Collegiate, I ended up buying a used copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, since I remember it fondly from my own childhood and because it’s the dictionary most warmly recommended by the Whole Earth Catalog, which has never steered me wrong. It’s coming on Tuesday, and after it arrives, I wouldn’t be surprised if it took up a permanent place on my desk, next to my reference copies of my own novels and A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes. Whether or not it will change my style remains to be seen, but it’s still something I wish I’d done years earlier. Dictionaries, as all writers know, are books of magic, and we should consult them as diligently as we would any religious text, an act, like canoeing, performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself. As Jean Cocteau says: “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.”

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

95 Responses

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  1. Well said. We’d all be better writers if we understood the words we tried to use.

    revelations2127

    April 29, 2013 at 6:14 pm

  2. Thanks! My American Heritage Dictionary just arrived, and it’s everything I hoped.

    nevalalee

    April 29, 2013 at 9:40 pm

  3. A friend of mine does something on Facebook where she has a different status everyday telling us what she’s going to try to be. I have to look up most of the words she uses, but it’s enlarging my vocabulary. When it comes to my friend, my dictionaries are getting more use than usual.

    rami ungar the writer

    April 30, 2013 at 10:14 am

  4. I am so scared with technology that my children will never pick up a dictionary now that they can google.

    segmation

    April 30, 2013 at 10:15 am

  5. @rami: That’s a useful friend to have!

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 10:16 am

  6. @segmation: I worry about the same thing, too. (I have a four-month-old daughter, and she’s already fascinated by all the screens in the house.)

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 10:17 am

  7. I can definitely relate on all fronts and you have now passed on the curiosity on the matter. :) Perhaps I should bring back out the dictionaries, I’ve been a slave to intangible tools for too long. Besides there’s something stimulating about flipping through thin pages painted with long lists of words fighting to get your attention. I think the older versions would seem to have acquired even more worth as a new era is re-defining old words and instating new ones. Thank you for this wonderful post!

    peacewisdomprosperity

    April 30, 2013 at 10:19 am

  8. @peacewisdomprosperity: You’re welcome! Conventional reference books seem to be dying out, which is a shame—online versions are fine for looking up what you want to know, but they aren’t nearly as good for showing you what you never knew you needed.

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 10:21 am

  9. This is very interesting stuff here. However, you have to be careful with words just in general. Dictionaries won’t help you if you’re using a word that was used thirty years ago in one context and your readers are thinking of it in a modern context. Also, across cultures words can be different. Meaning is important, but context is just as important.

    jennpower

    April 30, 2013 at 10:43 am

  10. @jennpower: Agreed. That’s why dictionaries tend to be most useful, as McPhee points out, for clarifying the meaning of words you already know.

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 10:45 am

  11. I have a beat up dictionary that I received as a gift from someone back when I graduated from High School (in 1972 – yikes). It has been chewed by a couple of puppies over the years (giving new meaning to dog eared pages), and the spine is pretty much separated. Still, can’t bear to think of giving it up, yet I do find myself going online for most everything these days. Good post, I enjoyed it.

    W E Patterson

    April 30, 2013 at 10:52 am

  12. @W E Patterson: Thanks! I have a sentimental attachment to a lot of books like this, even if I don’t consult them as often as I should.

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 10:55 am

  13. Reblogged this on The Blogspaper.

    incaunipocrit

    April 30, 2013 at 11:02 am

  14. I received an American Heritage Dictionary when I graduated from high school, and I still have it. Complete with some pressed shamrocks between pieces of wax paper. I’m sentimentally attached, even though I mostly look stuff up on-line too. You can’t press plants in your laptop…

    bdh63

    April 30, 2013 at 11:09 am

  15. I wrote about the same McPhee essay this week, and his point about the dictionary vs the thesaurus was spot on. I like how he actually lifts phrases from definitions! Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

    Kevin Brennan

    April 30, 2013 at 11:25 am

  16. @bdh63: My old copy from my childhood had pressed flowers in it, too!

    @Kevin: Thanks! Reading McPhee’s advice on using dictionary definitions was one of those moments when I could feel my education as a writer click forward one useful notch.

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 11:37 am

  17. My favourite dictionaries to read are foreign ones. The fun I’ve had trying to look up the German word for “History”, and getting stuck in the translations of “hiccup”.

    hidingfromthefuture

    April 30, 2013 at 11:52 am

  18. Thanks for this tip – I’ve recently taken up writing more seriously even and I think I will try this next time I am stuck trying to find a new way to say something that has been said before.
    Blessings
    -Jen
    http://thelilyandthemarrow.wordpress.com/

    The Lily and The Marrow

    April 30, 2013 at 11:53 am

  19. So aptly rendered. Thank you! I love a good dictionary search. Words are positivity addicting aren’t they? So glad to hear of others who are equally enamored with the nuance and meaning and rich texture of word possibilities.

    Kami Tilby

    April 30, 2013 at 11:57 am

  20. @hidingfromthefuture: Same here. I majored in Classics, and there was something peculiarly satisfying about looking up a word in Latin and finding that the illustration was the exact sentence I was trying to translate.

    @The Lily and the Marrow: Thanks! Hope you’ll drop by again.

    @Kami: Thank you! I’ve already been browsing with happiness through my new American Heritage Dictionary—I’d forgotten how much fun it can be.

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm

  21. http://www.dlmchale.com writes: Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I enjoyed reading your post and will spend some additional time on your blog in the hopes of experiencing some more of your talented and “authentic” voice. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. It was fabulous!

    dmchale

    April 30, 2013 at 12:27 pm

  22. Love it…love it..love it!!!

    As a kid, I used to read them for fun :D

    Particularly enjoyed -> ” Dictionaries, as all writers know, are books of magic, and we should consult them as diligently as we would any religious text, an act, like canoeing, performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.”

    Tad

    April 30, 2013 at 1:17 pm

  23. My dictionaries are my favourite books. I got the complete Oxford for my 21st (moons ago) and loved the derivation. I almost divorced Mr Carmichael when he propped broken bed op with my Roget’s and Brewers. You say you’ve never owned a dictionary but I feel you fib?????

    mrscarmichael

    April 30, 2013 at 1:47 pm

  24. I love reading the dictionary. It is the only tool a writer needs, I believe.

    Maz x

    - http://thoughtbible.wordpress.com/

    Maz Jez

    April 30, 2013 at 2:06 pm

  25. Dictionaries –

    I actually did an early post about my dictionaries. Read http://irvent.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/my-dictionaries/ if interested

    Rotten Ray

    April 30, 2013 at 2:18 pm

  26. Reblogged this on Simply Lyndsi and commented:
    Because I, too, love the dictionary, and even thesauruses. This will probably become a thought constant whenever I turn to a reference material.

    simplyndsi

    April 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm

  27. I recall the days when you could safely say all houses had at least 1 dictionary in them(if not more, as ours did) and a set of encyclopedias. Those truly were the days! Or probably the last of the days when “hard” books were the norm..cause it was all we had. Ahhhh the things that have been lost with the technology revolution…

    bernasvibe

    April 30, 2013 at 2:50 pm

  28. Thanks, everyone!

    @mrscarmichael: That sounds like the best birthday present ever.

    @bernasvibe: I think everyone should have a set of physical encyclopedias, especially if there’s a child in the house.

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 2:56 pm

  29. A great article, and the Cocteau quote at the end is terrific – I shall be using it liberally from now on!

    bishbashboogie

    April 30, 2013 at 3:38 pm

  30. @bishbashboogie: That’s why it’s there!

    nevalalee

    April 30, 2013 at 4:09 pm

  31. Words! I love them and love my hands on dictionaries, especially the Shorter Oxford where the writing is so small it comes with a magnifying glass! We’ve spent many happy hours browsing there!
    Shittlewitted was one word which we all loved as it sounded rude but merely means scatterbrained!

    I also love getting a word a day into my inbox! :)

    mybeautfulthings

    April 30, 2013 at 5:00 pm

  32. I agree, the dictionary is more useful than the thesaurus, and I like your explanation of why. Often I find myself using a thesaurus to weed out words rather than to replace them. The Oxford English Dictionary is especially useful since it tells a great deal about a word’s history, which is helpful if I am writing a period piece.

    David J. Bauman

    April 30, 2013 at 5:26 pm

  33. An excellent read, with a persuasive point. So persuasive, in fact, that I am getting off my browser and back into Word. Novel, here I come!

    Zenobia

    April 30, 2013 at 9:44 pm

  34. Oh, I really liked this one. I am a teenager and I like to read dictionary. Some of my friends ,when they come to know about my this hobby, they say how can you stick to dictionary . God, they really don’t know how amazing thing it is ! While reading, it feels like you are diving in the ocean of words and I am really fond of this feeling.

    http://www.aasthachaurasia.wordpress.com

    Aastha Chaurasia

    April 30, 2013 at 10:16 pm

  35. Wonderful read, thank you. I have a dictionary, but I’ve never thought to read it! Now I shall give it a gander when I next write. Perhaps I will be struck by inspiration, thanks to you.

    ilamont

    April 30, 2013 at 10:26 pm

  36. Love it! Thank you. I can remember when I was small, poring over my Dad’s massive Oxford tome, magnifying glass in hand. I can still smell it in my memory and feel the onion-skin thin pages against my fingers. My writing professor at Johns Hopkins swears that only the Oxford – the whole 20-volume set – will do for a *real* writer. He handed out McPhee’s essay last week.
    Love that last quote, too.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! And thanks for caring about things like rhythm and word choice!
    Blessings!

    melanielynngriffin

    April 30, 2013 at 11:10 pm

  37. I whole heartedly wish I knew more words. I would love to string together more imaginative and intelligent sentences ! I will make it my challenge to learn 8 new words a week and use them! Why 8? I just love that number!!

  38. Amazing read. I too use the Thesaurus during a rewrite when I would want to express the same idea in a slightly different manner which would produce the necessary effect in a more effective manner so as to create an impact. Though I feel the retention of words does not necessarily be produced when you read tings from a dictionary. You look for it, you use it then you forget it unless you revisit your own blog/writing. Anyway, thanks for the read.

    nvishal

    May 1, 2013 at 12:12 am

  39. i have always used the dictionary always so far as i can tell maybe because english is my second language taught in school.

    srijana kattel

    May 1, 2013 at 1:58 am

  40. Maps are great as well. They all still have a great use.

    Bob

    May 1, 2013 at 2:19 am

  41. Well said! When I was a child, around 9 – 10 years old, I used to read the dictionary. That makes me sound extremely precocious but I just loved words and finding so many new words that I had never even heard before was actually exciting! I no longer read the dictionary but I still do love words and language; I’m currently studying for a degree in Linguistics.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! :)

  42. Thanks again, everyone! And I apologize for not being able to reply to each comment individually.

    @Bob: I agree with you about maps. I still have one eye out for a good world atlas…

    nevalalee

    May 1, 2013 at 10:09 am

  43. I used to hate it when I would ask my parents the meaning of a word, and they would just point to the dictionary. But now I’m so thankful that they forced me to use an actual dictionary, and dictionary.com!

    Y

    May 1, 2013 at 2:43 pm

  44. What a fantastic point! I believe I will dig out my own paper dictionary (buried somewhere within the deep recesses of an old closet, or possibly a bathroom cabinet). Thanks for the advice!

    darcil

    May 1, 2013 at 5:00 pm

  45. Would that be thesauruses or thesauri ? :-) Tony

    Xraypics

    May 1, 2013 at 8:56 pm

  46. In sports I’ve found these words go bye bye from the book…
    Education
    sportsmanship
    rules

    kellyscott57

    May 1, 2013 at 11:20 pm

  47. Thank God there is a dictionary app that works exactly like a dictionary. But I guess the paperback gives a good feel and visuals, or definition about some terms. This is a great post that makes me want to search for my long lost dictionary.

    knightofjanuary

    May 2, 2013 at 2:55 am

  48. Call me weird, but I used to read the dictionary and the encyclopedia for fun as a kid (Wikipedia wasn’t even a glimmer in someone’s eye at the time). It’s fascinating to learn the history of words as well as their meaning. And somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the descriptions remain… like water behind a dam, ready to flow like a river when I need them.

    artsygenius

    May 2, 2013 at 9:02 am

  49. on trips my husband and I used to bring a tattered paperback Webster’s and challenge each other by reading definitions and then trying to guess the word. . .a game only word geeks could love!

    seph's salon

    May 2, 2013 at 9:44 am

  50. I like you am constantly using an online thesaurus to try and find words that will make my title alliterative. I always use dictionaries, especially to complete my german homework, but that is a different kind of dictionary use. Nicely written article and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    Aniket Chitre

    May 2, 2013 at 1:01 pm

  51. I like you am constantly using an online thesaurus to try and find words that will make my title alliterative. I always use dictionaries, especially to complete my german homework, but that is a different kind of dictionary use. Nicely written article and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    Aniket Chitre

    May 2, 2013 at 1:01 pm

  52. What a great idea for us writers! I really can’t wait to try it out!

  53. very interesting read dear Alec..thanks a lot for sharing. I want to share this with more readers hence re-blogging on my blog :)

    Kavita Joshi

    May 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm

  54. you can find me on my blog : http://talkingexperience.wordpress.com ..drop by my blog..I think you will enjoy it :)

    Kavita Joshi

    May 2, 2013 at 9:34 pm

  55. Reblogged this on Talking Experience.

    Kavita Joshi

    May 2, 2013 at 9:35 pm

  56. This is a great post. Side note, while initially hating the Kindle when it first came out (love the feel of a book, as well as it sitting on a shelf, a quick arms length away for reference), I have come to love my Kindle…and one reason is the built in dictionary…I use it much more than I ever could imagine. As you allude to above, many times it is for words I already know the meaning, but seek more information about the word, either for purposes of usage in my writing or to broaden my understanding of the word. Cheers!

    dalo2013

    May 2, 2013 at 10:40 pm

  57. I still believe in dictionary doctrine. Each time one of my children asks for the meaning of a word I use I tell them to look it up! They always reply. “Why? You already know, just tell me”

  58. I will definitely adopt the use of dictionaries for finding better expressions, instead of just juggling words via a thesaurus!

    Venom

    May 3, 2013 at 6:24 am

  59. I’ve enjoyed John McPhee’s writing for decades and have always been fascinated by his methodology. Like you, I use a lot of online dictionaries, but I never thought to use them as McPhee describes. Wonderful post. I will reblog to share and to keep ;)

    1WriteWay

    May 3, 2013 at 6:54 am

  60. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    A lovely meditation on dictionaries and how they help us write.

    1WriteWay

    May 3, 2013 at 6:55 am

  61. Thanks again to everyone for all the great comments! I apologize once more for not being able to respond to each one personally, but I hope you’ll all stick around. (And if McPhee’s example has inspired any of you to pick up a physical dictionary, my work here is done.)

    nevalalee

    May 3, 2013 at 8:46 am

  62. Not a day passes that I don’t reach for a dictionary at least once, either physical or digital. It just depends on where I am in the house, and specifically what I am doing. I enjoyed reading this. Congrats on the “Freshly Pressed”, it’s well deserved.

    whatsonlaurismind

    May 3, 2013 at 9:24 am

  63. I start all my posts with a definition and I’m often surprised at the depth and complexity of words I previously thought of as simple.

    DefiningMotherhood

    May 3, 2013 at 4:16 pm

  64. When I was 7 my mother bought me my first dictionary and I read random pages every night before I went to bed.

    madonnavalentine

    May 4, 2013 at 1:45 pm

  65. Thrilled to know that there are other ppl out there who actually read those books not just watch them collect dust on the shelf.

    cookie5683

    May 4, 2013 at 10:32 pm

  66. Coming from a family where no one else speaks English, dictionary was like a bible to me since childhood. However, now the hardcover dictionary has been replaced with an app on my cellphone. Nonetheless, it still very essential for me. No matter how many words you end up knowing, just a couple of random pages in any dictionary will introduce you to a word that you haven’t used in a long while or weren’t aware of.

    parmar.amit

    May 5, 2013 at 5:18 am

  67. So…it’s okay to plagiarize the dictionary?

    themodernidiot

    May 5, 2013 at 6:26 pm

  68. A sense is in me that studying words is a coming. My vocab is fine generally but it’s nice to spice things up – reading helps of course. When you come across words like ‘propinquity’ – nearness, it’s encouraging. It just sounds like a great word.

    lionaroundwriting

    May 5, 2013 at 6:49 pm

  69. the bit on oxford dictionary’s compact version and getting lost in them is so true. even today, if i ever happen to check a meaning through these small books, i end up spending hours, even forgetting what i was looking for but even after having spent many important hours, ive never felt they were wasted. loved your post. brilliant piece. thanks for sharing and congrats.

    moodsnmoments

    May 5, 2013 at 11:17 pm

  70. If you ever need a dictionary, most law school libraries have an Oxford. It is unbelievably big and amazing. Nerd moment.

    elhuerote

    May 6, 2013 at 12:31 am

  71. Great post! I have always considered buying an old school, proper dictionary to join my collection, and upon reading this, I definitely will. In a similar vein, I own a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s and the accompanying Britannica Atlas, from 1987 (the year I was born). They are my most prized possession, and I love flicking through them, reading random and ridiculous snippets.

    http://jaydeashe.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/the-paperbook-blog/

    The Paperbook Blog

    May 6, 2013 at 11:17 pm

  72. Have always loved the dictionary. Inspiration is everywhere.

    misscorrigan

    May 7, 2013 at 1:59 pm

  73. Many books were replaced by e-books or websites on the internet, but I also like to read the books – the touch of paper and its feeling can’t replace by electronic.

    alexbusher

    May 8, 2013 at 2:28 am

  74. My dad taught me very early in my life how to use a dictionary. He collected all sorts of specialized dictionaries and was a dictionary reader as a hobby. I have a few vintage foreign language dictionaries myself. I am very much interested in etymology. Thanks for you post.

    poemattic

    May 8, 2013 at 4:07 pm

  75. Great article. I had a room mate In college who read the dictionary A-Z. It took him years because he was so interested that he skipped all around the thing. He highlighted as he went and it was as interesting a thing to me as any work of art.

    primalnights

    May 10, 2013 at 1:19 am

  76. Interesting post! It inspires me to dust off my old dictionary and go wild:)

    KristinaLudwig

    May 10, 2013 at 12:20 pm

  77. Entertaining and informative

    priscillacpoupore

    May 10, 2013 at 2:33 pm

  78. I never thought of using a dictionary instead of a thesaurus. Light bulb moment, thank you!

    mummylovestowrite

    May 10, 2013 at 4:52 pm

  79. It’s fabulous to hear someone praise dictionaries in this age of technology. I love books and treasure my dictionaries. Without specialist dictionaries I would not have been able to translate these past twenty years. I have a handful of well-leafed favourites, some of which are now out of print. Their contents are an invaluable and reliable source of information, most of which is not available online. Thank you Alec!

    wildeworks

    May 10, 2013 at 6:25 pm

  80. Reblogged this on Kraft on WordPress.

    Kraft

    May 10, 2013 at 8:23 pm

  81. What a wonderful way to view the dictionary. I must confess I, too, mostly use the online tools but you’ve reminded me of the beauty of a printed book that holds deep treasures.

    VictoriaJoDean

    May 10, 2013 at 9:23 pm

  82. I agree. Every time I try to clean out my office, I get rid of a few things, but I can’t seem to get rid of even one of my dictionaries.

    johnkrab

    May 10, 2013 at 10:10 pm

  83. I used to read the dictionary for fun sometimes :) ; thanks for reminding me! Now I mostly use the online resources in English and Spanish. They are more efficient but not as rich.

    virginiajung5

    May 10, 2013 at 11:05 pm

  84. Reblogged this on bobblushing18's Blog.

    bobblushing18

    May 11, 2013 at 9:12 am

  85. Reblogged this on forgive.

    Larry

    May 12, 2013 at 7:26 pm

  86. Reblogged this on truthemultimedia.

    queentruthe

    May 12, 2013 at 8:20 pm

  87. My mother gave me an Oxford Concise Dictionary for my 8th birthday, which I loved. I asked my step-mum for a ‘good dictionary’ for my 21st, which she thought was a boring present but she did buy me the best of the best (of abridged versions) at the time, the Revised Macquarie, which has recently come into its own again for one irreplaceable reason – spell checker and the assumption that every person speaking English on this planet is an American! For example, spell checker has not one iota of an idea how to spell “whinger”, which is an invaluable word when writing fiction for an Australian audience. There are other examples too. But I love too, the simple pleasure of opening a page and reading what wonderful, marvellous things there are in the world that somebody has named. I love how my dictionary has never had a typo in it, that I’ve found, I love how diligent the people are who write them, to get the best, most precise definition. I also love linking random words into ideas for stories, and seeing where that can take me. Lastly, having recently learnt German, I love the English German dictionary that I have that gives phrases and uses of the words, that I would have no idea myself how to use in a sentence – concept as well as meaning, context and structure – man I could wax on about Dictionaries! It’s a German habit, but I think it deserves capitals. I still aim to own the entire Oxford.

    talesbytink

    May 13, 2013 at 12:00 am

  88. I have had a Random House Collegiate Dictionary for years. Probably not the best of the best but adequate. I prefer turning the pages of paper rather than turning to the computer. But, the dictionary I turn to the most, however, is the Pukui/Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary. As Hawaiian is a very metaphorical language this book gives all the various ways of using the word. For example if I look up the word paka which is the anglo-ized version of park, I see above that (without diacritical marks) paka meaning heavy raindrops that come down in a sheet and the phrase “hana ke uluna i ka paka o ka ua”–”work the pillow during the dropping of rain” or “might as well rest while it is raining”. How fun is that?!

    kiihele

    May 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm

  89. I agree with everything you have said, great points made here. I’ve taken to carrying a dictionary with me at all times now, more to look up the detailed meaning of words I commonly use in writing that are sometimes taken for granted in every day language.

    Hitchiking Colorado

    May 13, 2013 at 6:30 pm

  90. @kiihele: That Hawaiian dictionary sounds fascinating—I’ll need to track down a copy!

    nevalalee

    May 15, 2013 at 7:15 am

  91. @talesbytink: You sound like a reader after my own heart!

    nevalalee

    May 15, 2013 at 7:15 am

  92. My mother’s favourite book was the dictionary – and I love words too -
    just written my first novel

    elizawyatt

    May 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm

  93. Long live the OED! A writer misses out, I think, if he/she overlooks the riches and inspiration to be found in the etymology of words, their origins and history, the tremendous ammo and power of the allusiveness that inheres in them by dint of having survived over long periods of time and thus of having acquired many possible meanings and connotations in the reader’s mind. No dictionary delivers the real goods on words in the English language like the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), most particularly the unabridged edition of the OED. If you’re not acquainted with it, I encourage you to use it to check out such common ordinary words as health, kind, day and night as an intro to its value to your writing. The first usage of the word (and language of origin because so many English words were “borrowed” from other languages) and a word’s first appearance in print (as far as can be ascertained) is traced A-Z (Z being “us”). Very stimulating exercise, especially for creative writers and most especially poets

    margaretjeanlangstaff

    May 27, 2013 at 1:58 pm

  94. American Heritage is my dictionary. Well creased in the spine.

    sowingmercy

    June 2, 2013 at 7:22 am

  95. Reblogged this on melissafergusson.

    melissafergusson

    July 9, 2013 at 3:59 am


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