Get a paper dictionary

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I think we are going to need a bigger desk.


I have three by my side and yes, one is a huge Webster’s that I got at an estate sale for two bucks. For twenty years I have worked alongside people with advanced degrees and can count on one hand the number of interesting words my colleagues have used. But oh boy, can they say the word “ABSOLUTELY.”


On this prompt, I nearly bought a compact edition of the OED just now on Ebay. That’s the one that comes in two volumes tinted on very thin paper, but is the same as the many volume one. For £20 I could have been Emperor of All Pedantia Magna. But no, a word is only useful when the other person knows it too. Plus, I have my partner’s Britannica and I never open that. I will stick to my 3-vol Webster, even if it has trouble with ‘aluminium’.

If your safe had an OED in it, Beschizza, nice try.


I have access to the OED at home, through my library. Maybe you do too?


Found a compact OED for $20 at a garage sale a few years back.

And have you ever opened it? Asking for a friend…

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On occasion, though not as much as when I was still in school or getting paid to write. In other words, in recent years, not at all.

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Got the compact edition of the OED in grad school on a real diculous special and it is to this day my favorite reference. Best, most useful tome I’ve ever purchased.

edited to add: love that auto spell-check. I kinda like “real diculous,” though, and may use it on purpose from now on.


I have to disagree with Mr. King here. As I’m getting older, I find myself more and more knowing that I know le mot juste but not being able to pull it from the tip of my tongue. Thesauruses are very helpful in that instance.


One of the most difficult things for me about switching from Mac to Windows was that my old electronic copy of the OED is Mac-only. And they don’t sell it that way anymore. The OED is amazing, not so you can flash uncommon vocabulary, but because it provides very thorough definitions with historical attestations for first and subsequent uses. It’s a very good way to get a feel for a word beyond the denotation/connotation. Also for how people have changed.

I also recommend the Collins-Cobuild dictionaries, at least for people who write professionally. The college learners ESL version, I think, is the one what has the little 5-point system for indicating frequency of use. That’s really handy for avoiding unnecessary obscurity. For a non-OED, the Merriam-Webster college edition is a solid budget choice for USians.

All this said, I’m not so sure about the requirement for paper. I much prefer the idea of having a really good dictionary available in my phone, partly because my desk is cluttered enough already.




I quite like The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary, though sadly it has not been updated in a number of years. It doesn’t include exhaustive origins for each word, but many pages have unobtrusive but useful little “boxes” with significant anecdotes on usage and the like.

Still, these days I’m more likely to turn to Google or , simply because I know they’re unlikely to fail me.


I bought one of those from the thrift shop for $5. Doh - I knew it was two volumes but forgot. All the words I want to look up seem to be N-Z.

Oh, well, it’s a charity run shop.


My nephew was once downgraded in a college course on suspicion that he was not the original author of a paper he turned in for an assignment. The professor could not cite any proof of this but refused to believe that an undergraduate would have the vocabulary he employed.

If he had paid attention to his everyday conversation, that prof would have immediately been proven wrong. (The nephew’s father is a minister, schooled in multiple ancient and modern languages and the entire family uses a rich vocabulary every single day.)


You can download and install the 1913 edition of Webster’s for Mac/iOS/Android. I refer to it frequently.


I’d like to off my personal favorite American English dictionary; the American Heritage Dictionary, unabridged. It has some special features, most notably the Usage Notes, which are created by an editorial panel of writers of all sorts as well as linguists and lexicographers, and some stellar etymologies, fueled in part by the Appendices of I.E. and Semitic roots, created by the noted philologist Calvert Watkins. The online version is currently free: and it (like the various downloadable versions) includes audio pronunciations by humans.


I have a library card. That gets me into


I’d go the for oxford full set if I could afford the space
some time ago the british library said they expand their
shelf space by four miles each year

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This must be aimed at the younger readers. Some of us bought references books because there was no accessible online world yet.

In 1976 I got some money and bought a hardcover Meriam-Webster dictionary for $20. The cover was a bit bent, but it’s stood up.over time. I used it a lot, it’s a familiar object.

Ten years ago, as I turned fifty, I got an updated edition, another hardcover, it even came with a CDROM containing an electronic version, but I never installed it. I’ve never really used the new edition, it’s not worn and familiar like the 1976 book. I suspect I won’t buy a newer edition in my life.

I have a few paperback thesauruses and a book that just shows spelling of words, eeadier to page through if I just need a spelling. I have the two volume OED, I wad helping someone move and they were tossing it (but they kept the magnifying glass). It’s on a higher shelf since it’s big, so I don’t use it much. The last time I got it out, I dropped the vo!ume and destroyed a keyboard. I can’t imagine getting rid of it though. I know I lusted after one when a book club offered it for next to nothing decades ago.

I also have a few single volume cyclopedias on general topics, and various other reference books on specific topics. Even some Leonard Maltin books with brief summaries of endless movies, and some books that list tv shows.

Used less now, but they once meant a lot. Being “rich” means having such books at home so yiu don’t have to go to the library. Though at least some of these, like the OED, came to me used and cheap.