APRIL 21, 2020
CODEC: 1913


My favorite website of 2020 is a text editor and now my favorite app is a hundred-year-old dictionary. 2020 is truly wild.

So! To explain. I was watching a YouTube livestream run by Craig Mod where he was answering questions about the new iPad Pro Magic Keyboard. Since his iPad was onscreen, someone in the chat asked him what apps he had on his home screen. Two happened to be dictionaries — one to better understand Japanese, and the other to better understand words.

Yes of course “to better understand words” is the core idea of a dictionary, but I would argue that the ones we read on a semi-regular basis don’t allow us to do this very well. When is the last time you looked up a word in a dictionary and actually felt like you really learned something?

I mean, let’s look up the word ‘learned’! Having much knowledge acquired by study.

Well, okay, I guess! 

How about another word, something more heady? Let’s go with ‘facetious’: Treating serious issues with deliberately inappropriate humor

In both cases, the definition is sound but it’s weirdly slippery. Acquiring knowledge. Got it. Deliberate and inappropriate humor. Got it. Kind of. Do I get it? I’m not exactly sure! The definitions are so boring and monotonous (the dictionary describe monotony as dull, tedious, and repetitious; lacking in variety and interest) that I sort of forget them as I’m reading them.

So, Craig Mod mentions a dictionary app, and references an article by James Somers called You’re Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary. The article makes the case that modern dictionaries are boring because the definitions they hold are, in his words, “desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.”

That sounds like a sentence from someone that really knows how to use the right dictionary.

The article goes on to explain that dictionaries actually used to be good, and we can access this ourselves by going back to 1913 edition of Webster’s.

Let’s take a look at Webster’s definitions for my previous examples:

Learned: Of or pertaining to learning; possessing, or characterized by, learning, esp. scholastic learning; erudite; well-informed; as, a learned scholar, writer, or lawyer; a learned book; a learned theory. "The learned lover lost no time.” - Spenser. "Men of much reading are greatly learned, but may be little knowing.” - Locke. "Words of learned length and thundering sound." Goldsmith.

Facetious: Given to wit and good humor; merry; sportive; jocular; as, a facetious companion. Characterized by wit and pleasantry; exciting laughter; as, a facetious story or reply.

Monotonous: Uttered in one unvarying tone; continued with dull uniformity; characterized by monotony; without change or variety; wearisome.

My god, these definitions are so much better! The definition of ‘learned’ not only paints pictures of what learned people in our world look like, it then drops three quotes that are so great it makes me want to look up every word just to see what quotations this dictionary can cough up! The definition of ‘facetious’ adds a whole new level of depth; it’s easy to imagine reading that a character ‘acts facetiously’, looking up this definition, and learning that the dialogue is not simply ‘inappropriate’ as a modern dictionary would have you believe but witty, sportive, jocular!! ‘Monotonous’ moves from simply ‘tedious’ to ‘dull’ and ‘wearisome’. It’s so much better!!!

If you found yourself impulsively (‘Having the power of driving or impelling; giving an impulse; moving; impellent. "Poor men! poor papers! We and they Do some impulsive force obey.” - Prior.’) wanting to look up words while reading this, you are like me and you should do yourself a favor by immediately downloading the dictionary to your Mac and iPhone. A GitHub project makes it so simple you can highlight any word and use the ‘Look up’ tool to see these beautiful results.

Give it a download and find new ways to read “words of learned length and thundering sound”.