TITLE: The Word Came First AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 30, 2015 2:45 PM DESC: ----- BODY: James Somers's article You're Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary describes well how a good dictionary can change your life. In comparing a definition from Webster's 1913 Revised Unabridged Dictionary with a definition from the New Oxford Dictionary, which he offers as an exemplar of the pedestrian dictionaries we use today, he reminds us that words are elusive and their definitions only approximations:
Notice, too, how much less certain the Webster definition seems about itself, even though it's more complete -- as if to remind you that the word came first, that the word isn't defined by its definition here, in this humble dictionary, that definitions grasp, tentatively, at words, but that what words really are is this haze and halo of associations and evocations, a little networked cloud of uses and contexts.
Such poetry is not wasted on words; it is not, too use his own example from the essay, fustian. Words deserve this beauty, and a good dictionary. There is also a more general reminder just beneath the surface here. In so many ways, more knowledge makes us less certain, not more, and more circumspect, not less. It is hard to make sharp distinctions within a complex web of ideas when you know a little about the web. I strongly second Somers's recommendation of John McPhee's work, which I blogged about indirectly a few years ago. I also strongly second his recommendation of Webster's 1913 Revised Unabridged Dictionary. I learned about it from another blog article years ago and have been using it ever since. It's one of the first things I install whenever I set up a new computer. -----