James Somers thinks you should switch to the Websters 1913 dictionary, and he cites John McPhee's composition method of looking up synonyms for problematic words as the key to his peerless prose style. Somers makes a great case for the romance of historical dictionaries, but for my money (literally -- I spent a fortune on this one), the hands-down best reference for synonyms and historical language reference is the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose magnificence cannot be overstated.
It makes sense: there was, and is, something remarkable about his 1828 dictionary, and the editions that followed in its line (the New and Revised 1847, the Unabridged 1864, the International 1890 and 1900, the New International 1909, the 1913, etc.). 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.
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”).
You’ll find a sense of the word that is somehow more evocative than any you’ve seen. “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. Listen to that phrase: “to flash conviction on the mind.” This is in a dictionary, for God’s sake.
You’re probably using the wrong dictionary
William Seabrook was once one of America’s foremost literary stars; now he is all but forgotten. Seabrook travelled the world, writing a series of (decreasingly sympathetic) accounts of indigenous people and their culture, outselling the literary giants he kept company with, and who pretended not to mind the women he paid to let him tie them up and keep around his home. In The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, graphic novelist Joe Ollman presents an unflinching look at Seabrook, his literary accomplishments and failures, his terrible self-destructiveness, and the awful spiral that took him from the heights of American letters to an ignominious suicide after his discharge from a psychiatric facility.
If you were one of the lucky Del Toro fans who got to see the At Home With Monsters show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this year I hope you found the photo-mural of his house on the way out and took a selfie there — it looks like YOU are right […]
For the past couple of years, I’ve been making the case, at HILOBROW and in the UNBORED books I’ve co-authored, that the Sixties (1964–1973, according to my non-calendrical schema) were a golden age for YA and YYA adventures. In no particular order, here’s my list of the Best YA and YYA Lit of 1967. Happy […]
Whether I’m trying to relieve some stress at work or entertain myself on the metro, Space Putty is there. You can bring this magical goo home and try it for yourself for just $9.99Like Silly Putty of yesteryear, this viscoelastic substance can be molded into different shapes and stretched around in your hands. Use it […]
You know as well as I that writing complex, long-long form text requires significant organization. You’re probably also well aware that Word just isn’t up to the task. That’s why I’m a huge fan of Scrivener, the software suite used by best-selling authors and technical writers alike.Scrivener is much more than another digital typewriter. With a […]
Looking to upgrade your weekend? Here are three randomly awesome products on my mind this week.#3 FRESHeBUDS Pro Magnetic Bluetooth EarbudsAs more and more phones and gadgets switch to Bluetooth-only compatibility, you’ll need to get Bluetooth headphones like the rest of us. I’ve been super impressed with these affordable magnetic headphones. Pull the magnetic earbuds apart to auto-connect […]