A Discovery

This post is for Mac users, chiefly. And especially those Mac users who are writers. A couple years ago, I blogged about my beloved Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, and how it includes little bits of copy about words and their usage by writers like David Foster Wallace, Francine Prose, Zadie Smith, Simon Winchester, and the composer Stephin Merritt (among others). I bought a copy online and keep it always near my desk.

Did you know everyone already has a copy on his or her Mac?

It’s part of the built-in dictionary. Type in a word, click on “Thesaurus” in the little bar above, and you’ll get the word-for-word entry from this book I paid money for.

Better yet, it also has all the “Word Notes” by these writers. For instance, this DFW gem:

A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adjective), colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves.

Here, as a public service, is the list of words with notes by DFW:

as, all of, beg, bland, critique, dialogue, dysphesia, effete, feckless, fervent, focus, hairy, if, impossibly, individual, loan, mucous, myriad, noma (at canker), privilege, pulchritude (at beauty), that, toward, unique, utilize.

Something else I can’t help but quote, from his entry on that:

It so happens that you can occupy a bright child for most of a very quiet morning by challenging her to use that five times in a row in a single coherent sentence, to which stumper the solution is all about the present distinction: He said that that that that that writer used should really have been a which.

Built-in dictionaries and thesauri are historically sucky, right? (MS Word, I’m looking in your direction.) The OAWT is hands-down the best thesaurus I’ve seen. And Apple just gives it to people for free, with purchase. I’ve been saying a lot of bad things about Apple lately, but now I think I take them all back.

17 thoughts on “A Discovery”

  1. Is that screenshot from Safari? OAWT and OAWD have been used in the Dictionary widget for years, but how did you get them to show up in Safari?

    Also, I disagree about your love of that book. I also have a hard copy which I abandoned when it showed up digitally in OS X, but the widget’s still my main resource. I like the word usage notes a lot, but I find a better selection of synonyms even in the free online thesauri.

  2. Duplicate post without links.

    NeXT Computer had built-in Webster’s dictionary and thesaurus with picture way back in 1990s.
    So Mac inherited that from NeXT.
    It even came with Complete works of William Shakespeare.

  3. Was hoping there was a key somewhere to the initials on these notes. Obviously based on this post I know who DFW is, but what about DA, as in the note that’s linked from “pulchritude”.

    I haven’t found such a key… but, in the process of looking for it, I uncovered another semi-hidden gem: language and reference information as you’d find in a printed dictionary.

    In the dictionary app, select Go > Front/Back Matter > New Oxford American Dictionary. You get the typical stuff like credits, introduction, an pronunciation key, but also a nice reference section that includes guides to spelling, grammar, and proofreading, a history of English, a copy of the US Constitution, weights and measures (poorly formatted, unfortunately), and some other nifty reference material.

  4. The delicious task of using that five times in a row reminded me of this little gem:

    In the writing test 10 years ago, Frank had had had, while Michael had had had had. Had had had had the teacher’s approval, and Frank never forgot.

    A bit too cute, rally, but I like the fact that it makes sense.

    BTW, I’m using Version 2.2.3 (118.5) of the Dictionary, and a bunch of thesaurus entries either don’t show up. Weird eh?

  5. You can find Stephin Merritt’s Word Notes when you look up “love” or “romance” (as I expected).

  6. Man, I can’t tie today. It’s Charlie Bing with an “i” and I meant to write really not rally.

  7. @Charlie Bng: I’ll do you one better!

    James, while John had had “had”, had had “had had”. “Had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.

    And of course, “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

  8. It appears you can extract the dictionary files from a snow leopard instal disk (Mac OS X Install DVD/System/Installation/Packages/OxfordDictionaries.pkg) rename them and and copy them into the the dictionary folder (/Library/Dictionaries). You’ll see double entries for all the words, but it seems to work.

  9. The Word Notes are indeed still in Mountain Lion. I think some are confused because of your example: pulchritude. If you look up pulchritude in the Thesaurus, you will not see these notes — indeed, you won’t find it at all in the Thesaurus.

    Do this: Look up beauty in the Thesaurus. Bingo.

  10. You lost me at “Type in a word, click on “Thesaurus” in the little bar above”

    Where do I type? The screen shot shows an application called Thesaurus, but how do I summon it on my Mac? I searched and found the file(s), but no application. I know this is a dumb question, but I really have no clue about making this neat discovery work.

  11. Alex: that’s the Dictionary app with the Thesaurus tab selected.

    Go to Finder, open the Applications folder, and double-click the Dictionary app to launch it. Then select the Thesaurus tab in the smaller tab bar beneath the larger toolbar.

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