Better Words

I’m writing to share a link to the best blog post I’ve read in the last few months:

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary by James Somers

It’s a special mix of nerdy and splendid—somewhere between a lecture on language and a lifehack.


Last year I jotted down in a notebook: “Art is anything that’s better than it needs to be.” (Consider it an extension or adaptation of Brian Eno’s “Culture is everything we don’t have to do.”) I don’t know how well my definition holds up for others, but at the very least it’s a fun and generous thought exercise.

What’s art? A croissant can be art, a painting, a clipped hedge, a peer review, a made bed, a day’s itinerary. Artfulness springs from an excess of quality, so a person can be an artist by skillfully driving in icy conditions or having a natural talent at making their friends feel at ease. Artfulness is abundance. Or is it exuberance?

Exuberance; plenteousness; plenty; copiousness; overflow; riches; affluence; wealth. — Abundance, Plenty, Exuberance. These words rise upon each other in expressing the idea of fullness. Plenty denotes a sufficiency to supply every want; as, plenty of food, plenty of money, etc. Abundance express more, and gives the idea of superfluity or excess; as, abundance of riches, an abundance of wit and humor; often, however, it only denotes plenty in a high degree. Exuberance rises still higher, and implies a bursting forth on every side, producing great superfluity or redundance; as, an exuberance of mirth, an exuberance of animal spirits, etc.

That’s from Noah Webster’s 1913 dictionary, which is also the subject of Somer’s blog post. His argument is that everyone should use an older copy of Webster’s dictionary (but especially writers), because the definitions are, by my definition, artful, and that the dictionary’s artfulness leads to all kinds of unanticipated connections and appreciations for the supple veracity and evocativeness of language. Most contemporary dictionaries, in comparison, are rendered less artful because they value concision over loquaciousness. Somers gives a great example with the word pathos, whose definition he’s never quite certain. Another dictionary states that pathos is: “a quality that evokes pity or sadness.” Old Webster?

The quality or character of those emotions, traits, or experiences which are personal, and therefore restricted and evanescent; transitory and idiosyncratic dispositions or feelings as distinguished from those which are universal and deep-seated in character; — opposed to ethos.

And it continues for a second definition:

That quality or property of anything which touches the feelings or excites emotions and passions, esp., that which awakens tender emotions, such as pity, sorrow, and the like; contagious warmth of feeling, action, or expression; pathetic quality; as, the pathos of a picture, of a poem, or of a cry.

The writing gives a lived quality to the definition. It’s artful. Beyond examples like this, Somers takes the time to spell out how Webster invented American English, and explains the joy of looking up known words for the sake of bathing in Webster’s, hmm, prose? Throw in some John McPhee references and directions on how to swap out your Mac’s default dictionary for an old copy of Webster’s, and you have a blog post that is primo Frank-bait. If you’d like to take the 1913 edition of Webster’s for a spin in your browser, you can do so here.

These thoughts about language came to me at an opportune time. I have been meditating on and off (mostly on, much to my surprise) for the last two years. I’ll spare you the boring details of it (I sit and I sit), but needless to say, I have had a hard time describing the experience and outcomes of the practice. Maybe this is for everyone’s benefit—having someone prattle on about their meditation practice is about as tedious as someone recounting a dream. Still, the loss for words left me unsettled, because I love talking about my loves, and here I had no words.

The things I value the most are often wrapped up in my sensory experience—that impish smile of emptiness after meditating where one is ready to return to the illusion and play the game, the taste of honeysuckle stamen plucked in my yard growing up, the gnashing hum of the refrigerator buzz in my current apartment that you can’t unhear, the first sight of the photograph where Richard Avedon and Twiggy dance together, the clank of my mom’s heels on the floor before school while I laid in bed hitting snooze, that lush, acrid yellow which only comes from saffron, and blue—every kind of blue.

This is the exuberance in an artful life that’s available to all of us. It is when you are a witness to your own consciousness, a beholding of the world. But what to call those scraps? Words pile up easily (How many words are in À la recherche du temps perdu?), however the lack I’m describing is the label on the box that holds them. Would you call it evocative? Perhaps sensual? Partially fitting, but annoyingly off. Evocative is too forceful and brings connotations of manipulation. It’s not supple enough. Sensual has been oversexed and diminishes the range by dragging things into an erotic direction. Neither have anything to do with honeysuckle, refrigerator hum, or all those blues.

This is not a new gap in the language. The need was so great Milton got involved. From the New Oxford American dictionary (yes, another dictionary):

In fact, the word sensuous is thought to have been invented by John Milton (1641) in a deliberate attempt to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. In practice, the connotations are such that it is difficult to use sensuous in Milton’s sense.

A pity, because my needs are met by going back to Webster’s dictionary, but the gap between his meaning and the one the world holds renders the word useless for my purposes.

Sensuous (a): Of or pertaining to the senses, or sensible objects; addressing the senses; suggesting pictures or images of sense.

Webster is with me (or I with him), but no one else. Despite all of his artful delineations for the words we have, we still lack some that can describe the most notable moments of our consciousness: when we are a loving witness to the world. Our box for those experiences stays unlabelled, identifiable and real, but as inexplicable as everything that it holds. The secret stays a secret.