Desire and Endeavour

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Many of you area already aware that I’m an avid David Foster Wallace fan. This is a fairly recent development. I read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in high school, but that was a mistake. I don’t think I was mature enough to understand it and the book made almost no impression on me; I only remember coming away with an association between Wallace and footnotes.

The real addiction didn’t begin until last year when an ex-boyfriend made me read “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” an essay from April, 2001 in which Wallace reviews the latest edition of a dictionary of modern American usage. The essay is excellent (it will introduce you to a troubled world of lexicographical politics, juicier than you could possibly imagine), but its contents and the rest of my relationship with Wallace are stories for a different post. This event was significant for another reason: it began my love affair with usage dictionaries.

To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of usage dictionaries before reading the essay. They don’t just provide definitions; they clarify how the words are used (correctly) and correct common usage errors (e.g. “nauseated, nauseating, nauseous. 2. In AmE, nauseated until recently only meant ‘suffering from nausea, feeling sick to one’s stomach’; and nauseous strictly meant ‘causing nausea’. The distinction is no longer clearly observed, however, nauseous now being frequently used in the primary sense of nauseated.” — the entry continues for another four inches in which the editor debates this change in meaning). The idea of a usage dictionary immediately appealed to me though. I love words and how people use them, so it was hardly surprising that I popped into the basement of Strand Books that week to buy one (they are cheap, by the way; there is apparently not a booming market for used usage dictionaries. Mine was $6.95).

However, it was not until I found myself consulting the dictionary constantly that I realized it appealed to a deeper and more anxious part of my personality: my word paranoia. I have a constant anxiety that I have been misusing a common word or words my entire life and have no idea. This doesn’t seem so farfetched to me. When I was little, I asked my parents where “Orientar” was while listening to the Christmas carol about the three kings, and it was not until last year that I discovered that “brussels sprouts” was an alternative form of brussel sprouts (the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage abstains from an opinion on this matter, but does note that “broccoli” has completely replaced the formerly acceptable “brocoli” and is treated as a singular noncount noun like “spinach”). The idea that I could be doing this concerns me on multiple levels. Existentially, I wonder if my entire understanding of the world would be different if some not-insignificant portion of my vocabulary meant something other than what I believed it did. Professionally, I’d have some major reservations about my choice of vocation if it turned out I did not have a firm grasp of English usage. What is a writer without command of her words?

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But even more fundamentally than that, usage dictionaries help address a more generalized question: Am I doing it right? Fowler’s says right on the cover: “The acknowledged authority on English usage.” It’s not enough to verify a definition in a regular dictionary. I have to make sure that I am using the world correctly as well. I think one of the central fears of being human is that we go through world believing one version of our place in it, and it turns out that everyone else has a different and unanimous one. It’s like walking out of the bathroom unaware that a piece of toilet paper is stuck to the bottom of your shoe, but about everything. Once we enter adulthood, there are relatively few instances in which we are rewarded with the certainty that we are doing things correctly, as if “doing things correctly” could be confirmed to exist and clearly defined. Usage dictionaries, for me, mitigate a tiny portion of that anxiety, or rather, give me a reprieve from the greyness of the world. Of course, it’s a false sense of security because usage changes over time (just go read that David Foster Wallace essay for a taste of the various growing pains of our language), but it’s nice to believe for a minute in the certainty of our words.

Meanwhile, in the 18c., [“anxious”] began to turn on its axis and came also to mean ‘full of desire and endeavour; earnestly desirous (to bring about some purpose).

Do any of you suffer from word paranoia? Do you ever look at usage dictionaries?


  1. I don’t use usage dictionaries, but I find myself doing Google searches for words or phrases I am going to use or have just said to check to make sure they meant or were spelled how I thought. Also, I find as I’m sitting at my computer most of the day at work if I overhear something that piques my interest I will also search for it. I just really like words.

  2. I had no idea usage dictionaries exist; I just added one to my wish list on several book sites! I also love the cover for this post; I’m glad you included Strunk and White.

    1. They are fascinating! They are much less dry than traditional dictionaries; there’s a lot more opinion involved. The editor will sometimes even write in the first person. Hope you enjoy looking at one! Please let me know what you think.

  3. Anxiety is interesting. It has a way of making us believe it is helping , when it is in fact only perpetuating itself. I used to care a lot about perfection too, because I was terrified I didn’t belong to the world of legit writers , legit people. Now I do my best, but realize the fear I felt ultimately made me insufferable to others.

    1. It’s a difficult balance to strike. I go through phases with perfectionism: sometimes I’m able to set it aside, and sometimes it feels like a compulsion.

      You certainly don’t seem insufferable to me!

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