James Somers read an essay by writer John McPhee in which the latter mentions how he employs the dictionary in his editing process. The problem was — as Somers details in his own piece — that he and McPhee appeared to be using very different kinds of dictionaries. None of the dictionaries Somers had been using offered the richness that McPhee’s one seemed to. So he went out to find out which dictionary that was, and added it as his default dictionary on OS X.
Being a non-native writer, I followed Somers’ instructions at the end of his post and did the same. The second quoted paragraph below reminded me why I’m so fascinated with English as a language. Emphasis mine:
Recall that the New Oxford, for the word “fustian,” gives “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” I said earlier that that wasn’t even really correct. Here, then, is Webster’s definition: “An inflated style of writing; a kind of writing in which high-sounding words are used, above the dignity of the thoughts or subject; bombast.” Do you see the difference? What makes fustian fustian is not just that the language is pompous — it’s that this pomposity is above the dignity of the thoughts or subject. It’s using fancy language where fancy language isn’t called for.
It’s a subtle difference, but that’s the whole point: English is an awfully subtle instrument. A dictionary that ignores these little shades is dangerous; in fact in those cases it’s worse than useless. It’s misleading, deflating. It divests those words of their worth and purpose.
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