In this next installment, it’s time to talk about more tools of the trade.
Last time, of course, I talked about the word processor, and why I like small, minimal ones instead of monolithic, fully-featured ones — for the drafting process, at least. Today, another staple: the dictionary.
Every writer should own a dictionary. Scratch that — every writer should own a Dictionary, capital letters and italics included and necessary. There’s a gargantuan difference between a Dictionary and a dictionary, and I’m not just talking about the price point. Of course, there are alternatives. To effectively draw a distinction, we need to consider what you’re using a dictionary for. To my mind, there are basically two functions that the dictionary should serve for you.
One, the dictionary needs to let you find and define words that you don’t already know the meaning of. (Yeah, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. SOMETIMES IT’S OKAY, OKAY? Would you rather have read “words whose meaning you don’t already know” or “words of which the meaning you do not know” or the thing I wrote? YEAH I THOUGHT SO.) If you’re reading age-appropriate literature, odds are there will be a tasty handful of these little gems sprinkled in there. Why? Because variety is the spice of life, and you can only read the word “good” or “fast” or “slow” so many times before you want to pluck your eyes from their sockets and puree them into a gristly soup so that you don’t have to read those boring words any more. Good writers avoid having their readers puree their eyeballs by using a broad swathe of words so that you don’t get bored to the point where eye-pureeing seems like a good idea. That means that they will, by necessity, exhaust the canon of “ordinary” words that the average person lives with in his average life and strike out for the far reaches of the unknown, where words have four or five or six syllables (multisyllabical words, oh my!) and the sad fact is that a lot of us just don’t know all those highfalutin’ words well enough to use them in our everyday speech or writing, if at all. And I say that with full confidence in my vocabulary as an English teacher. I know my vocabulary sucks. Sorry, it’s atrocious.
I read once that the English language is composed of something like three hundred thousand adjectives, which is more than 850% of the total words in the language. Statistics are always true. The point is there are more words in the language than you have room in your brain for, and a good storyteller will push your limits by throwing some of those words in there. Sure, you can figure them out on context a lot of the time, but isn’t it satisfying to look up a fancy word so that you know it and can then toss it offhandedly into your water cooler conversation like a foppy prince tossing a bag of change at a servant? “That episode of The Walking Dead was so guttaperchic, man. I mean, positively seminiferous.” See, if you knew those words, you’d know that at least one of those statements is absolute nonsense. The other reason (and it flows from the first, really) you need a solid Dictionary is to help you discover new words to use in your own writing. Think of it this way. Electricians have tools. Carpenters have tools. Missile building geniuses have tools (right John?). Hell, even a Comcast Service Technician has a truck full of tools. What do all those tools do? Well, unless you have a lifetime of experience running wires or building vestibules or being a totally worthless appendage of a company best likened to the Sarlaac — sorry, a Comcast Service Technician — you don’t know! Sure, you can guess that the clippy-looking-thingy might be used to, I dunno, cut things, or that the pointy-bit-on-the-end-of-a-steel-doodad could be used to poke holes in things, but when it comes to poking the proper holes in the proper things in the proper place, you’re as educated as a Comcast Service Technician. (Truthfully, CST’s I’ve had experience with have all been pretty decent human beings, even if they work for the most unholy corporation in the known universe, a corporation that now apparently has religious freedom, so HAVE FUN WORSHIPPING THE BLACK MAW. Thanks, Supreme Court!)
Ahem. Writers have a job just like carpenters and electricians and rocket scientists and… no, we’ll leave the Comcast Service Techs out of this one. Unlike those, you know, technically-abled sorts, we don’t have trucks or toolboxes or closets to keep our tools in, because our only tools are words. A good, solid dictionary is the best tool repository you can hope for, and on a per-word basis, even an expensive dictionary is the equivalent of getting a 5,000-piece drill-bit and screwdriver-attachment set for $19.99. You wouldn’t set out to build an addition onto your house with just a manual screwdriver and a hammer. All that said, let’s look at your options.
Online Resources. Here’s your web-based dictionaries, i.e., Merriam-webster.com, dictionary.com, or whatever website floats your boat. And don’t get me wrong, these are AWESOME, but they come up short in that “discoverability” factor in the same way that Amazon doesn’t quite measure up to a good old fashioned bookstore with actual walls and shelves and books and snooty clerks. With an online dictionary, you can only find the words that you’re looking for. Now, that’s a great feature — albeit one you can accomplish with an old-fashioned dictionary in the absence of a working internet connection, and for those write-at-the-edge-of-society-so-as-to-commune-with-nature types, that’s a monstrous plus. Sure, these sites will highlight words from time to time and post “words of the day” and other fun stuff, and again, those are GREAT. But you miss the tactile feel and sense of wandering among corridors and pages of words that a hard copy brings. By the way, just for poops, I scrolled down on the Merriam-Webster site and found a list of the top 10 most searched words in the last week. They are:
And I think that says JUST A LITTLE BIT about the insane perverted prudish idiotic political culture that we live in.
Cheap, dollar-store dictionaries and pocket dictionaries. This is a step backwards from online resources, because there is not nearly enough depth or breadth in these. I saw one in a dollar store once that was literally one hundred pages long. That was boasted on its cover. How many words can you cover in one hundred pages? Not enough. The really tasty words just aren’t going to be in there, and even the definitions are condensed and crap, like a microwave dinner. These are useful until about the time you finish high school, assuming you’re not particularly interested in expanding your horizons beyond high school.
Abridged dictionaries. Now we’re getting somewhere. If a dollar-store dictionary is a microwave dinner, an abridged edition is a meal-in-a-box. You don’t feel as dirty using it as you would if you just tossed your food — THE FOOD THAT YOU EAT TO SUSTAIN YOUR LIFE — in the microwave for its entire cooking process, but you know in your heart that you can do better than boiling water to dump the noodles in or preheating the oven to 350 and then cooking for an hour. The definitions are better and you get a lot more depth and breadth and you start seeing some of those juicy words, but you’re still only dredging the shallows.
Dictionaries. Here I’m talking about books that might be better classified as bricks. This book is probably hardcover, because a paperback won’t stand up to being cracked open and laid bare along its spine the way a hardback will, not to mention that there are SO MANY PAGES a paperback wouldn’t even support them. This is a book whose presence on your shelf demands notice, like an elbowy mafia fatman squirreling for space in an elevator. It uses that ultra-thin paper like bibles use because the printing costs would be astronomical if it used standard paper; that paper that feels like it would dissolve in direct sunlight, that paper that makes you feel like you need the steady hands you developed from years of playing Operation just to turn the pages without crinkling them. And ooh, that smell. Smells like knowledge. Crack this book open and you can just taste that delicious aroma of every word that’s ever been thought of crashing through your olfactory nerve and wrecking your frontal cortex with the pungent stank of knowledge. Thumb through the book, put your finger down on any random page and discover words like isogamete and nasturtium and teetotalism (which actually means the OPPOSITE of what I thought it means, in fact I didn’t even think teetotal was a word until just now, I always thought it was “T-total”, like “capital T Total”, in other words COMPLETELY MOTHERTRUCKING TOTAL, but it DOESN’T. The more you know!). Add them to your daily lexicon and impress your friends (or, more likely, earn yourself a few raised eyebrows and punches in the mouth).
I’m not making any secret what my preference is. At the moment I’m flipping through the weathered pages of a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a book bound in beautiful royal blue and weighing in like a bowling ball. This book could classify as a home defense system if you could get a good swing with it. And it’s not even a “big” dictionary. To my mind, if you’re writing in any arena beyond high school, you owe it to yourself to have a hefty hardbacked capital-D Dictionary handy. One that’s heavy with wordstuffs, so heavy you need a packmule to carry it around. Thumb through it from time to time. Make it into a drinking game — one shot for every word that features a schwa. But more importantly, use it to GROW YOUR LANGUAGE-FU.
What else do writers need? What else do people think writers need? Am I wrong about dictionaries? Let me hear it.