The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Another excellent read I came across in a newsletter (Sarah Bray this time), James Somers talks about dictionaries. That may not sound enticing, but he does it really well!

He first describes the problem:

The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. 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 — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian…

That is, until he discovered John McPhee (an American non-fiction writer) describing how he uses his 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.

And after illustrating how good McPhee’s dictionary must have been, he mentions the sad fact that McPhee never names the particular version he used. So Somers did some sleuthing and discovered the history behind Webster’s dictionary.

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 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”).

This is the best thing I’ve read in a while.