Searching for John McPhee’s Secret Writing Tool

A book where you can enter “sport” and end up with “a diversion of the field” — this is in fact the opposite of what I’d known a dictionary to be. This is a book that transmutes plain words into language that’s finer and more vivid and sometimes more rare. No wonder John McPhee wrote with it by his side. No wonder he looked up words he knew, versus words he didn’t, in a ratio of “at least ninety-nine to one.”

Unfortunately, he never comes out and says exactly which dictionary he’s getting all this juice out of. But I was desperate to find it. What was this secret book, this dictionary so rich and alive that one of my favorite writers was using it to make heroic improvements to his writing?

I did a little sleuthing. It wasn’t so hard with the examples McPhee gives, and Google. He says, for instance, that in three years of research for a book about Alaska he’d forgotten to look up the word Arctic. He said that his dictionary gave him this: “Pertaining to, or situated under, the northern constellation called the Bear.”

And that turned out to be enough to find it.

James Somers on the power of a good dictionary.

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