This James Somers post, made me realise why my dictionary word lookups were so much less engaging than when I was a kid.

From the post …

[…] 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”)

And immediately, I realised that is what I was missing.
Because even as a kid, we couldn’t quite afford dictionaries, so I used my father’s old and tattered hand me down copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which expressed meanings in the same thoughtful, expressive, authoritative manner (even if it wasn’t quite as beautiful as Noah Webster’s)
The language was old and graceful.
You could somehow sense the work and thought that went into it.
And that is what I want. That is what gives me joy as I learn.

And boy, did Noah Webster put in the work!

In 1807, he started writing a dictionary, which he called, boldly, An American Dictionary of the English Language. He wanted it to be comprehensive, authoritative. Think of that: a man sits down, aiming to capture his language whole. Webster’s dictionary took him 26 years to finish. It ended up having 70,000 words. He wrote it all himself, including the etymologies, which required that he learn 28 languages, including Old English, Gothic, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Welsh, Russian, Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit. He was plagued by debt to fund the project; he had to mortgage his home.

In his own lifetime the dictionary sold poorly and got little recognition.

A labour of love, this truly was!

I’ve immediately switched my kindle as well my desktop to this beatiful compendium of words.
The post has links to get the dictionary into your Mac, iOS/Android device, and the Kindle
The stardict file in the S3 link also works with Goldendict on my Linux Mint desktop, solving one of my last quibbles about moving from OS X to Linux.
I finally have a systemwide dictionary.1
You can also use it online, here.

I’ll end with this quote.

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.

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  1. via Goldendict’s scan popup function ↩︎