Finding the perfect word

by Jessie K on June 6, 2013

37d796f85f433cef8369050b731f4e8cMy all time favorite application on my computer is the dictionary. I use it every single day. Looking up words — even words I already know the meaning of — gives me a sort of secret thrill (NERD ALERT!).

I use the thesaurus a lot too in my writing. I love trying to pinpoint le mot juste. But I just came across something in an April New Yorker article by the wonderful John McPhee (one of the great American writer/reporters, if you ask me) who says that the thesaurus, while occasionally useful, offers a mere “scattershot wad” of words, while the dictionary itself offers a more refined and precise word selection.

He uses the word “sensitive” as but one example, which, in a particular context, read as too pretentious. He looked it up in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” “Highly susceptible” better captured what the writer was really trying to say.  See? Precision.

You can read the article here (though I think it’s behind a pay wall).

Which dictionaries or thesauruses do you use?


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura June 6, 2013 at 11:23 am


I love that the NY Times has a built-in dictionary. I discovered it by accident and now I use it often. I also like to look up words I already know. I thought it was a symptom of insecurity- glad to know it just means I’m a nerd.

Jessie K June 6, 2013 at 11:48 am


Nerd! Nerd! Nerd!

Brenda June 7, 2013 at 5:38 am


I have to admit I was always lazy about looking up words while I read. Didn’t want to stop the story to find the dictionary, etc. Now, thanks to technology, I can ctrl+click and a bubble pops up with the definition and the word’s use in a sentence. No more laziness, well, perhaps a new kind.

Heather M June 7, 2013 at 7:47 am


I still use my old hard cover copies from college. Yep, I will actually get up and go to the bookcase and look up a word.
Sometimes I will Google a word if I am writing an email and am unsure how the spelling should be, but that isn’t often.

Janelle June 7, 2013 at 9:51 pm


I also use, on a daily basis, both the dictionary and the thesaurus on my MacBook. I am not, in the least, a wordsmith and I need as much help as I can get. And even at that, I’m still not as um, hmm, (see, I can’t find the word…) ah, expressive? exact? precise? as I’d like to be.
I also use wordreference dot com as a French/English dictionary or the French/French dictionary on TV5 dot org.

Joanne from Colorado June 10, 2013 at 11:55 am


I’m reading a novel by a friend and I have to look up words every other page!! I suppose it’s good exercise for my brain. Now I find myself using the online dictionary and thesaurus every day. Crap. I had just spelled thesaurus wrong…again. Thank goodness for auto-correct. hahaha

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