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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