James Somers says that we’re probably using the wrong dictionary and that most modern dictionaries are “where all the words live and the writing’s no good”.
The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at dictionary.com: they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.
As a counterpoint, Somers offers John McPhee’s secret weapon, Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, the bulk of which was the work of one man and was last revised in 1913.
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.
And, toward the bottom of the entry, as McPhee promised, is a usage note, explaining the fine differences in meaning between words in the penumbra of “flash”:
“… Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.”
Did you see that last clause? “To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.” I’m not sure why you won’t find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won’t. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: “glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface .”
Who decided that the American public couldn’t handle “a soft and fitful luster”? I can’t help but think something has been lost. “A soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface” doesn’t just sound worse, it actually describes the phenomenon with less precision. In particular it misses the shimmeriness, the micro movement and action, “the fitful luster,” of, for example, an eye full of tears — which is by the way far more intense and interesting an image than “a wet sidewalk.”
It’s as if someone decided that dictionaries these days had to sound like they were written by a Xerox machine, not a person, certainly not a person with a poet’s ear, a man capable of high and mighty English, who set out to write the secular American equivalent of the King James Bible and pulled it off.
Don’t miss the end of the piece, where Somers shows how to replace the tin-eared dictionaries on your Mac, iPhone, and Kindle with the Webster’s 1913. (via @satishev)
Update: In the same vein, Kevin Kelly recommends using The Synonym Finder as a thesaurus.
Just look up a word, any word, and it proceeds to overwhelm you with alternative choices (a total of 1.5 million synonyms are presented in 1,361 pages), including short phrases and only mildly related words. Rather than being a problem of imprecision, the Finder’s broad inclusiveness prods your imagination and prompts your recall.
James Somers, writer and web developer, ponders the value of the work that he does.
I have a friend who’s a mechanical engineer. He used to build airplane engines for General Electric, and now he’s trying to develop a smarter pill bottle to improve compliance for AIDS and cancer patients. He works out of a start-up ‘incubator’, in an office space shared with dozens of web companies. He doesn’t have a lot of patience for them. ‘I’m fucking sick of it,’ he told me, ‘all they talk about is colours.’
Web start-up companies are like play-companies. They stand in relation to real companies the way those cute little make-believe baking stations stand in relation to kitchens.
Take Doormates, a failed start-up founded in 2011 by two recent graduates from Columbia University whose mission was to allow users ‘to join or create private networks for buildings with access restricted to only building residents’. For that they, too, raised $350,000. You wonder whether anyone asked: ‘Do strangers living in the same building actually want to commune? Might this problem not be better solved by a plate of sandwiches?’ (The founders have since moved on to ‘Mommy Nearest’, an iPhone app that points out mom-friendly locations around New York.)
A lot of the stuff going on just isn’t very ambitious. ‘The thing about the advertising model is that it gets people thinking small, lean,’ wrote Alexis Madrigal in an essay about start-ups in The Atlantic last year. ‘Get four college kids in a room, fuel them with pizza, and see what thing they can crank out that their friends might like. Yay! Great! But you know what? They keep tossing out products that look pretty much like what you’d get if you took a homogenous group of young guys in any other endeavour: Cheap, fun, and about as worldchanging as creating a new variation on beer pong.’
James Somers noticed that his equity derivative-trading roommate was the only one of his young professional friends who comes home from work “buoyant and satisfied”, so he accompanied him to work one day to see what his job entailed. Turns out he basically plays video games all day.
A trader’s job is to be smarter than the market. He converts a mess of analysis and intuition into simple bets. He makes moves. If his predictions are better than everyone else’s, he wins money; if not, he loses it. At every moment he has a crystalline picture of his bottom line, the “P and L” (profit and loss) that determines how much of a bonus he’ll get and, more importantly, where he stands among his peers. As my friend put it, traders are “very, very, very competitive.” At the end of the day they ask each other “how did you do today?” Trading is one of the few jobs with an actual leaderboard, which, if you’ve ever been on one, or strived to get there, you’ll recognize as being perhaps the single most powerful driver of a gamer’s engagement.
That seems to be the core of it, but no doubt there are other game-like features in play here: the importance of timing and tactile dexterity; the clear presence of two abstract levels of attention and activity, one long-term and strategic, the other fiercely tactical, localized in bursts a minute or two long; the need for teams and ceaseless chatter; and so on.
Athleticism and competitiveness are often downplayed when we talk about white collar careers but are essential in many disciplines. Doctors (surgeons in particular) have both those traits, founding a startup company is definitely competitive and can be as physically demanding as running, teachers are standing or walking all day long, and even something like programming requires manual dexterity with the mouse & keyboard and the stamina to sit in a chair paying single-minded attention to a task for 10-12 hours a day. (via @tcarmody)