In Search of the Right Word

MR15-04(102).jpgThe right word in the right place. That’s the goal of every writer. But sometimes, the right word is elusive, ethereal, at the edge of perception. I squint into the middle distance, trying to catch a glimpse. Seldom am I successful.

So I turn to an old friend – the dictionary. The dictionary has helped me find the right words since I was a youngster. (Yes, even when I didn’t know how to spell them.) Later, I invested in a 20-pound Merriam-Webster, which I purchased with one of my first corporate paychecks.

And yet – perhaps because we writers are a solitary lot – I was unaware that others were as devoted to the dictionary as I was. It’s not like dictionaries come up in conversation all that often. But recently, I saw one of John McPhee’s essays on the writing process, published in The New Yorker, in which he discussed the relative merits of thesauruses and dictionaries, coming down squarely on the side of the latter. He said when he looks up words to see how the dictionary defines them, it leads him to a better word.

I favor the dictionary for similar reasons, particularly when comes to initial word choice. In that department, the thesaurus – a collection of synonyms, defined as “one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses” – is an imperfect source. It does not tell me what a word means. With a dictionary, I can really get to know a word and in considering its definitions and usages, find the right word. Often, I learn something new about words I thought I knew well. (The thesaurus, however, is a terrific resource when I need a synonym to reduce repetition.)

My dictionary of choice these days is no longer a 20-pound tome. It is a website of dictionaries – One Look Dictionary Search (, which gives me access to a lot of different dictionaries. Believe it or not, definitions vary from dictionary to dictionary. Another great reference is Library Spot (, a free virtual library resource center.

The search can be exhilarating. But the real buzz comes when I get that bolt of insight. As Mark Twain said: “The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning-bug & the lightning.”

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