Yay! O happy day! The Oxford English Dictionary on-line (OED) is back as a free service. I don’t know why they changed to a pay subscription only model, but it is once again free and that’s all that matters.
Are you as excited as I am?
If you’re a writer you should be. In some cases the OED opens a world of alternate meanings not included in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on-line (M-W). If you’re a writer stuck for that elusive perfect descriptor, a new source could make all the difference.
Just as an example, take the word ‘flivver’. Kind of obscure, true, and I can’t say that I’ve ever used it in writing or conversation, but it is a featured word on the M-W website. M-W defines flivver as “a small cheap usually old automobile”, while the OED defines it as “a cheap car or aircraft, especially one in bad condition”. In this case the OED provides a slightly wider, more detailed definition.
In all fairness though, the pendulum swings both ways. The OED defines ‘shimmer’ as (v.) shine with a soft tremulous light, and (n.) a soft, slightly wavering light. The M-W’s definition is almost identical with (v.) to shine with a soft tremulous or fitful light and (n.) a light that shimmers : subdued sparkle or sheen, but adds a second definition: (n.) a wavering sometimes distorted visual image usually resulting from heat-induced changes in atmospheric refraction, and (v.) to reflect a wavering sometimes distorted visual image. In this case the M-W provides an expanded, more detailed definition.
Using the right word in the right context is essential to ensure the intended meaning of what you’ve written is conveyed to the reader with clarity, preciseness, and economy. In order to do that it is sometimes necessary to reference several sources. I need to add though that unless your intent is to have the reader duplicate your research, if you use a word like flivver, you might need to include explanatory text. While I make no apologies for using big or uncommon words in my writing, I do try to include subtle hints about the meaning. Here’s an example using flivver:
John boarded the flivver reluctantly. He knew the aircraft had been bought for cheap and its quality was questionable at best. The second sentence defined flivver without losing context. It is clear that John is boarding a cheap aircraft in bad condition, just like the definition, but without saying “A flivver is a…” and letting your reader know that you don’t think he knows what the word means.
To find the right word you may also want to consult one or more of the specialized or technical dictionaries online. There are tons of them available for psychology, engineering, physics, religion, etc. Those are all great places to look up the new words you find in your favorite thesaurus.
Online or otherwise a thesaurus is a great tool, but I don’t know how many times I’ve accessed a thesaurus and found a word or phrase that seemed just perfect only to discover that the actual meaning wasn’t anything like I thought it was. A thesaurus is a great tool for suggestions, but only if you’re willing to verify the meaning in the M-W and OED.
So here we are again, but this time with another reference available to us, the OED. Good writing resources and our willingness to use them helps us to more clearly communicate with our reader and, more importantly, to enable understanding.
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