You’re Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary

“I don’t want you to conclude that it’s just a matter of aesthetics. Yes, Webster’s [1913] definitions are prettier. But they are also better. In fact they’re so much better that to use another dictionary is to keep yourself forever at arm’s length from the actual language.

Recall that the New Oxford, for the word ‘fustian,’ gives ‘pompous or pretentious speech or writing.’ I said earlier that that wasn’t even really correct. Here, 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.

It’s a subtle difference, but that’s the whole point: 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.”

James Somers. “You’re probably using the wrong dictionary.” jsomers.net. May 18, 2014.

Worth reading in its entirety. You never know what you’re missing or how cheap the tool is that you are using until you see the tool, or the word, that expands your imagination.

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