I was recently reading John McPhee's new book, Draft No. 4, and a there was a passage that struck me about how he uses a dictionary in his writing process. McPhee says, "I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one." He then gives examples of how looking up very common words leads him to much more compelling and accurate language in his final drafts—citing examples of definitions he has utilized. Simple enough, to be sure. However, the language McPhee presents in his examples felt far richer and more nuanced than what I typically find when I perform a dictionary search on, say, my phone. My immediate thought was, "What dictionary is he using, and how do I get one?!" Call me naive, but until that moment I just hadn't thought it could matter so much.
As it turns out, I'm not the first to be so enamored with McPhee's attitude on dictionary usage. James Somers, who often contributes to The Atlantic wrote a fantastic blog post back in 2014 (shorty after McPhee's chapter had been published by The New Yorker) that not only locates the Webster's edition McPhee prefers, but goes one step further in showing you how to set your digital devices to offer that exact edition. Somers' accompanying article serves as a tidy introduction to Noah Webster and the many dictionaries that followed in his wake. Somers elegantly illustrates why these early editions have never been bested. If you want to peruse some 1913 edition definitions, you can find a website with its entries here: https://www.websters1913.com/. You can find Somer's post here: http://jsomers.net/blog/dictionary