You’re Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary is a delightful and stimulating essay by writer and programmer James Somers. Somers’ essay explores one’s relationship with words and their meaning, and the surprising influence the source of those meanings can have on that relationship. In it, he discusses his search for the unusual dictionary described – but not named – by John McPhee. A single definition proves enough to discover the rich and evocative definitions and usage notes from Noah Webster’s original 1828 dictionary of American English, which was the first of its kind. Somers then describes how those definitions have changed his relationship with even the most mundane of words when compared to the pedestrian entries found in modern dictionaries, which he describes as “desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.”
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828) can be searched online. I began looking up the words we use for the top-level modeling concepts at Thetus before I even finished reading the essay. Some sample entries from the 1913 edition:
- Thing: Whatever exists, or is conceived to exist, as a separate entity, whether animate or inanimate; any separable or distinguishable object of thought.
- Person: self-conscious being, as distinct from an animal or a thing; a moral agent; a human being; a man, woman, or child.
- Organization: The state of being organized; also, the relations included in such a state or condition.
- Place: Any portion of space regarded as measured off or distinct from all other space, or appropriated to some definite object or use; position; ground; site; spot; rarely, unbounded space.
- Event: That which comes, arrives, or happens; that which falls out; any incident, good or bad.
Compared to say, the built-in dictionary found in OS X, these definitions are much more subtle and far less sterile. Also, Event has a particularly nice example of usage notes.
Somers recommends you go look up some words in Webster, and I do too. It may just change the way you feel about the words you use in everyday life. It’s already changing the way I think about the words we use to describe models at Thetus.
Finally, the post has an appendix where Somers explains how to use the 1913 edition on a Mac, iPhone, or Kindle if you want to be able to use this dictionary every day. Enjoy exploring!
~ Marijane White, Data Scientist
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