You Should Read This: The Dictionary. Any Dictionary.

Picture of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The narrower the definition of a word, the more likely it is to delight me.

I love the dictionary. I have, in fact, been known to dip into it for pleasure, to swoon with delight at a new word like lacustrine or neritic. When I was in grad school, we played a version of Balderdash that far predated the boxed set, using an American Heritage dictionary that still sits on my shelf.

What: Any book of words that tells you what’s built into them, whether it’s a dictionary of hobby-related vocabularies or a more complete overview. I’ve got a shelf’s worth of them, including a number of foreign language dictionaries and the beloved Compact edition of the OED my brother gave me one year.

Who: If you are someone who uses words, and want to make sure you are using them correctly, use a dictionary. A while back while I was teaching at Hopkins, a student handed in a piece that was unsettling in a way I’d never encountered before, consistently misusing words. When we talked about it, she revealed she’d written the piece and then used a thesaurus “to make the words fancier.”

Why: If you are going to write, you must know how to use words. They are the basic building block of the trade. Read the dictionary in order to use them with rigorous precision, an appreciation for their history, and an understanding of their grammatical use.

When: All the time. On your phone. While waiting for your bus. When you want to refill your tank of words.

Where and how: The deeper the dictionary, the more interest it holds for me. I like specialized dictionaries that list fashion terms or kinds of birds or words taken from other languages.


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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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