John McPhee, maybe our greatest living nonfiction writer (depending on how you feel about Joan Didion), has a lovely essay on omission in this week’s The New Yorker. Along with a tidy analysis of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor and some great shaggy-dog stories about citrus fruits, General Eisenhower, and more, he includes an exercise he learned writing for Time that he’s adapted for his students at Princeton.
After four days of preparation and writing—after routinely staying up almost all night on the fourth night—and after tailoring your stories past the requests, demands, fine tips, and incomprehensible suggestions of the M.E. and your senior editor, you came in on Day 5 and were greeted by galleys from Makeup with notes on them that said “Green 5” or “Green 8” or “Green 15” or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine. You were supposed to use a green pencil so Makeup would know what could be put back, if it came to that. I can’t remember it coming to that…
The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed. Easier with some writers than with others. It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train—or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size. Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint. Measure cumulatively the fragments you remove and see how many lines would be gone if the prose were reformatted. If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.
Greening seems like such a material thing, wholly specific to print — not just to the fact of magazine layout, but a specific kind of workflow. One’s tempted to say with digital writing, we’ve overcome those space limitations, but I’m less sure. Twitter’s the obvious example, but doing web layout, I’ve killed more than my share of lines to preserve symmetry or squeeze everything into a smaller space.
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.
In the event of an invasion, the entire country of Switzerland is rigged to destroy all of its road, bridges, railroads, and other infrastructure. Or at least it was during the Cold War. Geoff Manaugh reports on a John McPhee book about the country’s defenses.
In any case, the book’s vision of the Alps as a massively constructed-or, at least, geotechnically augmented and militarily amplified-terrain is quite heady, including the very idea that, in seeking to protect itself from outside invaders, Switzerland is prepared to dynamite, shell, bulldoze, and seal itself into a kind of self-protective oblivion, hiding out in artificially expanded rocky passes and concrete super-basements as all roads and bridges into and out of the country are instantly transformed into landslides and dust.
The first reader comment is more than a little eye-popping:
I have seen this with my own eyes as a foreign student in Switzerland in 1981, when a MOUNTAIN “opened” up and four jets flew out of it, near the quiet town, Martigny.
Update: About a minute into this clip from Rick Steves’ Europe, Steves takes a tour of some of the hidden defenses of Switzerland.
(thx, nils & dennis)