Friday, September 28, 2012

A Luddite and His Dictionaries

At some indeterminate moment in the past few years, I began to think of my computer as an elder colleague who has possession of a magic lamp. As long as I treat this colleague with a modicum of respect, my colleague will intercede on my behalf, and my wish will be granted.

I never see him, but I know the genie must be powerful because my wishes are multifarious and kaleidoscopic. One minute I may wish to know what time Booth closes on Saturday. Having satisfied that desire, I may wish to watch a chess match between Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar with voice-over move annotations. Perhaps, after viewing a purely cerebral contest, I may develop a taste for something a little more physical. Twelve seconds later, I'm watching Michael Jordan put up a 46-7-5 line against The Pistons in game 3 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals. (For the record, the shot Jordan makes at the end of regulation is the most underrated game-winner in his career, and maybe in NBA history.)

All this the genie has accomplished, yet it hasn't even begun to show what its capable of.
  • You wanna bet a horse in The Kentucky Derby?  Your wish is my command.
  • You wanna shop for a new bed? Your wish is my command. 
  • You wanna say goodnight to your children when you're in Oslo and they're in Montreal? Your wish is my command.
We've gotten used to hearing those five words, haven't we?

There is nothing inherently wrong with using computers for many of the tasks we use them for. However, there is a risk that our reliance on silicon-based technology will become insidious, especially for those of us who want to become better writers.

An important part of writing is composing sentences, and an important part of composing sentences is combining words in distinct, meaningful ways The more words you know, the more sentences you can create. The more sentences you can create, the more thoughts you can convey in your writing. The more thoughts you can convey in your writing, the more conceptual distinctions you will be able to express in your writing. The more conceptual distinctions you are able to express in your writing, the clearer you will think. And isn't thinking clearly an intrinsic good? Maybe not. Still, I would suggest that thinking clearly is strongly correlated with As. 

Whatever reason you use to justify the goodness of thinking clearly, thinking clearly requires strong diction. But how will you learn words that you don't know? How will you find the perfect word to express a thought that took weeks to ripen? 

One tactic is to rub that magic lamp, to make another wish. An easy tactic, if you ask me.

When our wish is new and ardent, we may prefer an obsequious genie who does our bidding without complaint, but, in my experience, such complaisance eventually begins to do more harm than good. You begin to yearn for the slow struggle of overcoming a challenge. Visiting is not going to get the job done.

A student looking up the word "lazy," in an online thesaurus may not fully appreciate the subtle differences which exist between each entry. Thus, to use an online thesaurus to find a couple of ill-fitting and contorted synonyms for the sake of semantic variety, in many cases, will backfire. Your paper may end up sounding worse than it did before you used the online thesaurus. 

It is an honorable goal: You want to vary the vocabulary in your paper; you want to make your paper more interesting to read by employing all the spices the English language hides behind its cabinet doors. But just like a chef requires more than a white fluffy hat to be a chef, a writer requires more than powerful magic lamp to be a writer.

Allow me to suggest a better way: Use a dictionary, a collegiate dictionary for the road, the Shorter Oxford for your apartment.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that you can't look up a word you don't know. True.

But, surely, during your many academic engagements (the novel you're reading in English class, the essay from The Wall Street Journal you're reading for economics class, the discussion you have with your Philosophy professor) you occasionally come across an unfamiliar word. When it happens, you can either keep a list, say, with a ten word limit, and then go look up all ten when you find a convenient time to do so, or you can look up a word immediately after encountering it. 

Now, again, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that the genie has a dictionary also. You're thinking that it would be a gross inefficiency to take the time to look a word up in a print dictionary, when rubbing the lamp is so much quicker. I'll grant that there are times and circumstances when using an online dictionary is appropriate (especially when you need help pronouncing foreign phrases or proper names), but don't rely on it. 

Take a trip, take the scenic route. Riffle the pages of the 11th edition. I bet you'll learn more in two months than the genie taught you in two years. 

1 comment:

  1. We have a copy of the compact OED in the Writing Center. You'll feel like Sherlock Holmes when you take the magnifying glass in hand and follow the trail of a new or familiar word from its origins to the present.