Old Dictionaries

1 November 2022

Our language is flatter than it used to be. We post in short blips, read in shorter blips, and attempt to comprehend things super fast. Texting has made us efficient with words, but less expressive.

Brevity doesn’t always suit what we’re working on, though. Often enough, you need the right word, not the right emoji. 👍

If you’ve ever read Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee, you’ll know that he advocates using a dictionary, not a thesaurus, to find the word you want. His method has a lot to do with digging into the meanings of words, and also looking for words with adjacent meanings.

I love this method because it helps you drill down into the meaning of the word you want to use. It never takes you off track or send you squinting after other words that might not fit. To stay on track, and use this method well, you require an old dictionary.

Here’s another use of an old dictionary: I’m finishing The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. One of the great pleasures of reading it has been the new vocabulary words I’ve encountered (along with a great story, plot, and an alternate history of computing). It’s my favorite Gibson book, next to Neuromancer. I’ve been reading it with Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 edition, on my phone.

When you look up internet” in a dictionary from 1913, you get, predictably, nothing.

But when you look up decoction, you get illumination:

I never thought of decoction as much different from concoction, but now I know.

You can install more than one dictionary on your computer, or you can download several for your phone. Toggling back and forth between dictionaries allows you to jump across centuries. You won’t lose out on the definition of internet, and you’ll know what a decoction is.

The 1913 edition is different from the dictionaries we have online now. Not only does it have words that are no longer in use, but it includes words that have shifted their meaning. Often, those meanings have become flattened out with modern use. The older Webster also liberally quotes Shakespeare and other classical writers. It seems to me that language was once used more precisely. We may know many ways to describe how a website can be hacked, but we don’t have as many useful words for a hard rain. For example, I thought a drench only could be used for weather, but it turns out that the original meaning had more to do with giving medicine to a horse.

Drench, transitive verb imperfect or past participle Drenched; present participle or verbal noun Drenching. AS. drencan to give to drink, to drench, the causal of drincan to drink; akin to D. drenken, Sw. dränka, G. tränken. See Drink. 1. To cause to drink; especially, to dose by force; to put a potion down the throat of, as of a horse; hence. to purge violently by physic.

As to fell,” is to make to fall,” and to lay,” to make to lie.” so to drench,” is to make to drink.” Trench.

  1. To steep in moisture; to wet thoroughly; to soak; to saturate with water or other liquid; to immerse.

Now dam the ditches and the floods restrain;

Their moisture has already drenched the plain. Dryden.

Drench, noun AS. drenc. See Drench, transitive verb A drink; a draught; specifically, a potion of medicine poured or forced down the throat; also, a potion that causes purging. A drench of wine.” Dryden.

Give my roan horse a drench. Shak.

A drench of wine sounds unpleasant, but it sure is descriptive. And I’d want to be sure when drenching my horse, I was spraying water on it, not forcing medicine down its throat.

Another example: epithet. I thought epithets were all about cursing, but the older meaning is richer.

Ep′i-thet, noun. L. epitheton, Gr., fr. added, fr. to add; ἐπί upon, to + to put, place: cf. F. épithète. 1. An adjective expressing some quality, attribute, or relation, that is properly or specially appropriate to a person or thing; as, a just man; a verdant lawn.

A prince to whom the epithet worthless” seems best applicable. Hallam.

Never was a town better epitheted. Sir H. Wotton.

Old dictionaries are the best, but it serves me well to have a few of them handy when I’m writing. If a need to write about a server, I’m probably talking about the thingie that manages access to a centralized resource or service in a network, and not this:

Serv′er, noun 1. One who serves.

  1. A tray for dishes; a salver. Randolph.


(c) Lee Schneider 2022. Take care of each other. Subscribe.