Making Books Out of Words (Erin McKean)

Erin McKean is the founder of Wordnik.com. Previously, she was the editor in chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, and the editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2E. You can find her on Twitter at: @emckean.

Traditionally, the writer’s reference toolkit has consisted of a dictionary and a thesaurus (sometimes augmented with books of quotations or allusions). These are books that are used to make other books, allowing writers (in principle) to check the strength and suitability of their words before committing them to sentences and paragraphs, before completing their explanations and narratives.

But just as some aerialists work without a net, many writers work without these tools, or are told that they ought to. Hemingway said “Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write,” and Simon Winchester (himself the author of two books about the Oxford English Dictionary) called the thesaurus “a tool for the lexically lazy”). And the lamentations over the shortcomings of the automatic spell-checker have been loud and long.

It’s no wonder that some have warned against the use of these tools: static paper (or static electronic) dictionaries and thesauruses (and books of quotations and allusions) are by their very nature inclined to be out-of-date, incomplete, and inadequate, because they have only been able to track the uses and meanings of words from a relatively small selection of previously published ...

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