Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like



Here’s a great idea. Scrap the dictionary you’ve been using all this time — you know the one(s), the EZ online Webster’s, American Heritage, New Oxford American — and take the time to go to a real dictionary, a dictionary that loves words as much as you do. I’m talking about Webster’s Revised Unabridged 1913, which you can access online.

In this piece about the inadequacy of modern dictionaries, James Somers goes spelunking in the 1913 Webster’s, using the most artful John McPhee as a guide. McPhee (I cited the same article last year that Somer’s relies on here, “Draft No. 4”) makes it a habit to consult an unnamed but clearly superior dictionary for advice on words as commonplace as “sport.” That allows him, as Somer’s describes, to come up with the phrase “a diversion of the field” as a stand-in for the mundane “sport” — all because he didn’t think canoeing was a sport, exactly. How beautiful is that?

Personally I liked McPhee’s anecdote about the word “arctic.” His consultation with the 1913 (Somer’s thinks) gave him: “Pertaining to, or situated under, the northern constellation called the Bear.”

Or how about this:

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 the 1913 Webster’s]. 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”).

The thing feeds you phrases that you can use! Clothed In Act would make a great title.

Go ahead and read the article. It’s inspiring. Somers looks at a few choice words to whet your whistle, words like “fustian” and “pathos.” They probably don’t mean quite what you think they mean, or at least your modern sense of them is not as complete and nuanced as the real deal.

And if you’re really excited by all this, you can install the 1913 Webster’s on your own computer for quick rhetorical advice. Somer’s shows how to do it on a Mac, iPhone, Android, or Kindle. It’s a little complicated (I haven’t done it yet), but it sure looks worth the effort.

English is one of the more luxurious languages in the world, dripping with synonyms and shades of meaning and inviting — almost demanding — our approbation. (Yes, I looked it up in the ‘13!)

How on earth did we let our dictionaries become not much more than Ikea assembly instructions?

10 comments on “Word!

  1. scottishmomus
    June 9, 2014

    Oh, thank you for this. I’ve just checked this out and tested it with a few words and it is now saved to my favourites for use. I miss a few dictionaries from my past that have now gone out of publication. Hopefully, this will prove to be a worthy replacement. Thank you again.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 9, 2014

      Wonderful! I have a feeling I’m going to be consulting the old ’13 a few times a day…

  2. sknicholls
    June 9, 2014

    With the manuscript I just completed, I was required to go to the Urban Dictionary a few times. Its a whole other world out there.

  3. Phillip McCollum
    June 9, 2014

    This is awesome. You have my expression of gratitude.

  4. ericjbaker
    June 9, 2014

    When are they going to invent a “dust mite” app that makes me sneeze after I download an old book?

    But seriously folks, maybe Oscar Wilde was not so impossibly witty. He just had a good unabridged dictionary for reference.

    I still have a giant Webster’s unabridged, albeit from 1990. And an Oxford, which offers a more appealing font. Yesterday, my son and I were in the car, making up a story about Webster and Oxford being a loving husband and wife by night and bitter dictionary rivals by day, arguing about word meanings and example sentences and maybe even resorting to sabotage to outdo the other.

    I probably shouldn’t admit this, should I?

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 9, 2014

      Your son sounds like he’s going to have an interesting life…

      I remember how disheartened I was when I heard that Stephen Sondheim used a rhyming dictionary. Then later, I said to myself: Of course he uses a rhyming dictionary, you idiot!

      Much magic in writing isn’t all that magical in the making.

  5. John W. Howell
    June 9, 2014

    Good job.

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