Rediscovering the dictionary
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.
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.”