Unlike previous entries in this more than occasional series, the current book does not offer a front-to-back, fiction or nonfiction narrative. Its genesis was a Brain Pickings post in which David Foster Wallace extolled the virtues of the usage dictionary. I hunted for mine, a book I’ve had since college. Discovering it had gone off into the ozone layer, following any number of other books, offered the best excuse to order another. Online sleuthing produced a recommendation for the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.
It is the sort of book that can fill some minutes before an appointment. Want to know the history of the word lawman? MW has the movie version. Have fun with “councillor, councilor, counselor, and counsellor.”
As these examples demonstrate, MW supplies history and context. Foster Wallace treats the usage dictionary as great bathroom reading. I wouldn’t subject it to the humidity and potential for landing in a bathtub full of water and suds. Plus, in hardcover form it’s not portable without risk of injury.
I do agree it’s great for non-linear reading. Unlike the standard version, usage dictionaries supply history and context.
Of course it offers an analysis of “usage” and how it differs from “use,” or doesn’t. Language is a game not to be played by the faint of heart!
For the story of benefits and detriments, history and context, read the page-long entry on “very,” a word I banned from my English composition classes.
Here’s a shorter example. MW traces the criticism of the word “nice” as a “general purpose term of approval” to the early nineteenth century, some fifty years after it arrived on the scene. Relying on a huge variety of sources, MW cites examples of great writers (and others) who continued to use “nice” in an unselfconscious way into the twentieth century. MW’s conclusion: “There is certainly nothing wrong with an effort to get college freshmen to use a greater variety of adjectives in their writing, but there is also nothing inherently wrong with nice in its generalized use.”