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Rethinking the Tools of the Trade

It would be ridiculous to suggest that writers and dictionaries don't go together.

And worse still to imply they can even be harmful to one another.

But that's what I'm doing.

Every now and then, when one of us is questioning a word choice in a script or headline, someone says, "Let's look it up and see."

First of all, if you have to look it up, just change the word. The dictionary might prove the copywriter was right. But the word is already wrong.

The dictionary is an owner's manual to the King's English. You and I are more concerned with the daily operation of everybody else's.

In the context of what you and I do every day, the dictionary is about correctness. But we are about communication. The dictionary is black and white. We operate in the greys of feeling, inclination, emotion, persuasion.

When I see a sentence such as, "Babe Ruth achieved notoriety after joining the Yankees," I understand "notoriety" to mean fame and celebrity. The dictionary says it means fame that came from notorious acts; negative, shameful behavior of some sort.

That's very different.

When I hear, "Last night I had the penultimate dining experience," I understand it to mean this restaurant would be at, or near the top of, this person's restaurant recommendations. The dictionary says it would be his second to last.

In both cases, the dictionary is right. It always is, in fact.

But those of us somewhere south of the King have our own vocabulary; born of such forces as improvisation, expediency, habit, and a constant confluence of cultures. These fuel the master evolution engine of language, creating new output daily, output that arrives at the dictionary sometime later.

But you probably have an ad due tomorrow.