Do you need a dictionary?

dictionary_0In today’s world, is a dictionary necessary?  It’s easy to look-up the definition of any word just by Googling for it.  If you are reading, ereaders have functionality to pull the definitions without even having to go to the web.

Can it be something more?

According to John McPhee, it should be.

Suppose you sense an opportunity beyond the word “intention.” You read the dictionary’s thesaurian list of synonyms: “intention, intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, goal.” But the dictionary doesn’t let it go at that. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line — how each listed word differs from all the others. 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.

I was told to avoid this in college.  That exchanging one word for another was not the way to write well.  But the way that McPhee takes a word like “sport” and ends up with “a diversion of field” and makes the prose better, well, this is a skill that I hadn’t heard of or seen before.

It got me thinking too.  What happens when you look up a word that you already know the meaning to?  Not necessarily the exotic words that I love to use when feeling like using $50.00 words,  but words that I know and use without thinking about it.  And can I find interesting substitutes like McPhee did?

So, let’s try substitute:

  1. to put or use (someone or something) in place of someone or something else
  2. to do the job of someone else or serve the function of something else
  3. to replace (one person or thing) with another

Even thinking about finding a word that does the job for another word, sounds better than finding a substitute for that word.  McPhee is on to something.  It’s not a one for one exchange, but rather a way of making something new and interesting.  A way to add and expand writing and add to the meaning of the words.

I’m not ready to buy a dictionary from a book store.  But I do wonder what I would find if I looked for one published a decade or more ago?  Would it be more interesting?  Better descriptions?  Improved writing?

How do you use dictionaries?  Do you use one?


One thought on “Do you need a dictionary?

  1. Bethany K. Warner says:

    I love John McPhee’s “fourth draft” concept of using the dictionary in the very last pass as a way to punch up the specific language you use. It works for McPhee who writes beautiful things about rocks.

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