Web Excursions 2022-06-19
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
you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward
words are boiled to their essence.
But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture
Worse, the words themselves take on the character of their definitions: they are likewise reduced
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 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:
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.
E.g., for a word or words that would explain why anyone in a modern nation would choose to go a long distance by canoe
“sport” is kind of clunky, it’s kind of humdrum
[but with MW] he’d discover this lovely chip of prose:
“2. A diversion of the field; 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
— 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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”).
“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
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.
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
New Oxford, for the word “fustian,” gives “pompous or pretentious speech or writing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
If you’re on a new M1 Mac with the Monterey OS, follow these instructions:
This GitHub Link has a “Just want the Dictionary?” section that links to the .dictionary folder on the releases page in GitHub: https://github.com/ponychicken/WebsterParser
Dictionary –> File –> Open Dictionaries Folder, and then, in Finder, dragging the downloaded “Websters-1913.dictionary” file into the folder, and then Dictionary –> Dictionary –> Preferences, checking the now last dictionary in the list, and dragging it to the top, gets the job done.
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.