Dictionary.com or bust?


The wonderful Betty C. recently got me to thinking about my dictionary usage. As a writer, I have an endless fascination with words. I’m not always enamored over the actual process of writing (what? You think it’s all wine and roses and glamorous book tours? I wish.), but I do enjoy mulling over a sentence, trying to find just the right word to express what I’m trying to say. It’s that whole precise vs. accurate conundrum. If I say “fat,” would it actually be a better description to say “overweight?” “Obese?” “Enormous?” “Flabby?” All these words have shades of meaning that differ from each other, and to substitute one over the other would change the meaning of the sentence. Really good writers would know the difference. Readers will have different intellectual and emotional reactions to each word.

I have a dictionary that was published sometime either in the 1970’s or late 1960’s, one that’s been in my family’s possession since at least we first arrived in the United States. I think my mom bought it at a yard sale. I used to pore over it when I was a kid, finding funny words or interesting words or words that just stumped my eleven-year-old brain. I would highlight them, so that during an idle moment while I’m flipping the pages I would stumble upon these bright yellow words and ponder over their meaning. Again and again.
Betty C. just bought the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with CD-ROM, and I now have dictionary envy. I’ve gotten lazy of late, relying on Dictionary.com for all my look-up-the-damn-meaning needs, but now I wonder if I should update my bookshelf as well and get a new dictionary. Awhile back I was on the hunt for a dictionary published around 1940, to use as a reference for my World War II-era novel, but now I’m thinking I should go contemporary and retire my poor old dictionary. It’s still in fantastic condition, but it’s hard red cover is showing lots of wear and tear, and the gold-colored embossed title is worn. The spine is starting to separate, although the rice paper-thin pages are remarkably still bright and hardy. Today’s books are poor cousins by contrast in terms of quality of binding and materials.
Anyone care to share their favorite print dictionaries? Do you have a particular dictionary of choice that you consider the definitive reference for writers of all stripes?

2 thoughts on “Dictionary.com or bust?

  1. Thanks for the link and mention!

    Well, if you want a 100% American dictionary, my father, who worked at a bookstore for years, really recommends the American Heritage. I think there are several versions. I bought the “College” version — 5th edition — at the same time I bought the 2-volume OED, to have both the British and American side of things, although I know the A. Heritage does cover British variants, and I’m sure the OED does the same.

    Some people swear by Webster’s, but the bookstore where my dad worked felt it was “stodgy” and that American Heritage was really where it was at. That’s all they sold, except by special order.

    I too often use Dictionary.com, which is a great site, but it is interesting to plunge more deeply into the origin and meanings of words.

    Tell me what you decide to buy!

  2. Of course, Betty! Always happy to point readers to worthy blogs.

    I don’t really mind if it’s 100% American or not. I was actually thinking that I should have a couple of dictionaries at hand, not just one.

    Remember when Webster’s used to be the default dictionary reference for everyone? Even when your dictionary was published by another company, you always said something like, “What does Webster have to say?”

    I used to have an American Heritage Encyclopedia Dictionary, a one-volume, 5″-thick tome that had mini-entries of not just words but historical events and people, places, etc. Like the Encyclopedia Britannica, but severely condensed into one volume. I used to read it all the time, but lost it when I shipped a bunch of stuff overseas. I still mourn its loss!

    What I don’t like about Dictionary.com is that, with few exceptions, the nuances between synonyms aren’t really explored. It’s not useful for EFL students, for example. At least, I don’t think so. And yes, I like knowing the origins of words, not just the meaning!

    I’ll let you know! And I’m toying with the idea of getting one of those dictionary stands, too. Pretentious, sure, but fun.


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