“On Reading the Dictionary”: Essay by Stephen Doty

Stephen Doty generously offered to share his essay, “On Reading the Dictionary,” with us. It begins:

Charlie Chaplin kept a dictionary in his bathroom.[1] J.L. Austin did philosophy with one, listing the words we use when making excuses.[2] Eminem read one to find ammunition for his lyrics and battles.[3] And it can spare you the sort of embarrassment a young Jerry Lewis felt when he cheered after the doctor said his grandmother “expired.”

I began reading one to avoid getting baffled by bombast. I had heard a defense lawyer declare that a detective was guilty of “defalcations and spoliation.” Afterwards, I discovered neither word was apt. A small vocabulary leads to staircase wit. Worse, you could be insulted without knowing it. Imagine a politician in a debate asked if he’s an expert at mendacity & perfidy. We did not grow up using such words, so as adults they can seem like a second language.

Nearly every use of these words seems to me like someone donning false plumes: mare’s nest, ubiquitous, untoward, ontological, plethora, quotidian. And any subtle misuse can backfire, revealing an affectation. Someone desperate to use vis-a-vis at every job interview is in trouble.

The idea behind reading the dictionary is not to start using fancy words yourself, but to avoid being imposed upon when others do.

[1] Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood (Minneapolis: U of Minn. Press, 1982) xli. In 1925, at age19, in New York, Brooks had an affair with Charlie Chaplin for two months and said, “He was a self-made aristocrat… he kept a dictionary in the bathroom at his hotel so that he could learn a new word every morning.”

[2] J.L. Austin, Philosophical Papers 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 1979) 186. He said one way to use the dictionary is “to read the book through, listing all the words that seem relevant; this does not take as long as many suppose.”

[3] Eminem interviewed on the TV show 60 Minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-BN2TJIhh4

The complete essay is available here: On Reading the Dictionary. Enjoy!

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