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Dictionaries, “Mot Juste,” and the Everlasting Quest for Precision

In our hasty, information-dense world, we don’t value precise language as much as we used to, even though a single word can mean the difference between delight and disaster. When did you buy your last dictionary?

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Close-up of a dictionary
Photo: / Romain Vignes
  • Words matter more than ever before in an age full of distrust and (false) accusations.
  • Use dictionaries whenever possible to clearly define the meaning of the words you use in your texts. Refrain from using thesauruses, as dictionaries offer a superior solution for distinguishing between similar words.
  • Using precise words shows the reader that you care enough about them understanding you correctly. It helps to set your pieces apart from texts of predominantly superficial quality that you encounter on the Internet today.

“Assume nothing” could be written on a neatly-framed postcard on every writer’s desk. However, in 2009, it was the slogan of the HSBC, and ultimately led to a $10 million rebranding campaign. How? Let’s assume there exists no appropriate expression for “assume” in any other language. But to market the bank’s services globally, translating the slogan became unavoidable. In some countries, that meant turning “assume” into “do,” resulting in the infamous “Do nothing” campaign.

When words begin to matter again

There are countless examples of unfortunate translation accidents that caused everything from laughter to ruckus to tragedy, often because a single word didn’t convey the exact meaning the author thought it would. Recently, I read an article by Joseph Epstein from 2012, stating that the “W4” (or “Web4”), the successor of the eminent “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary,” was still in development roughly 60 years after the W3’s release. It will presumably never be available on paper, though. “Besides,” the author of the piece concluded, “precision in the use of language, of the kind an excellent dictionary is supposed to help provide, is not a notable feature of our age.”

A bold statement – and it’s probably true. The vast majority of people don’t seem to care a lot about choosing the right word, though they experience rancor online for even the slightest mistake. People don’t care because they believe they can always correct and erase their mistakes. To them, the internet is different from paper; even though what you write online will most likely be permanent, it doesn’t feel that way.

Technology is convenient, and it makes us sloppy. You can make the case that most people will concern themselves neither with their mistakes nor with yours, so why should you care? Because some will, and these are individuals you’ll likely want to influence through your words.

They might be demanding clients or squeamish employers. They might be devoted readers or ardent admirers. If you climb up the social ladder, at a certain point, every word begins to matter. The higher the cultural capital, the more they tend to care about details, precision, and elegance. They don’t read Buzzfeed; they read The New Yorker.

The invaluable dictionary

Which brings me to John McPhee, one of the pioneers of creative non-fiction writing. He worked for TIME until 1964 and joined ranks with The New Yorker in 1963. He has written over a hundred pieces for The New Yorker alone, and all 30 of his books originated from these articles. Since 1974, McPhee has been teaching creative writing at Princeton University; in 1999, he won the Pulitzer Prize. Almost more impressively, he was nominated four times.

Without a doubt, John McPhee devoted his life to writing. Not to just any writing, though – to precise writing. In his book “Draft No. 4,” he mentions dictionaries fairly often. In fact, the book’s title hints at his favorite editing phase, when he draws boxes around words that aren’t wrong but don’t quite hit the mark. Eventually, he looks them up in a dictionary, hoping to find more meaningful replacements.

In the dictionary? Like many writing teachers, McPhee isn’t particularly devoted to thesauruses, even though they may seem invaluable to many. What could be easier than skimming through a list of related words and picking the one that sounds fanciest?

That’s specifically what McPhee warns about: “The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.” Conceding, “If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.” McPhee goes on to emphasize that he uses dictionaries mainly to look up words he knows instead of those he doesn’t (“ninety-nine to one”).

A good dictionary has a significant advantage over a thesaurus, according to McPhee: It doesn’t merely list synonyms; it defines them and elucidates their differences. That’s why you don’t want to own the pocket edition. Sometimes, McPhee even resorts to using part of the definition rather than the term itself. Whatever serves his purpose best.

Growing mot juste in the garden

To McPhee, it’s not about fanciness – it’s about precision. Crafting each word and every sentence to perfection, exposing the author’s true intent, convincing the reader with clarity. “I call this ‘the search for the mot juste,’ because when I was in the eighth grade Miss Bartholomew told us that Gustave Flaubert walked around in his garden for days on end searching in his head for le mot juste. Who could forget that? Flaubert seemed heroic. Certain kids considered him weird,” McPhee wrote.

The quest for precise words shows your reader that you care about language, that you care about the topic, and that you care about him or her. It will also decrease the likelihood that your writings will fail to persuade because your words didn’t resonate with the reader in the same way they did with you. Precision in language is considered politeness rather than pettiness. We owe it to our readers to pause for a moment, walk around the garden, and ask ourselves: Does this sentence convey the meaning I think it does? Potentially saving ourselves and others from trouble and awkwardness.

In the 1950s, the Mary Chocolate Company aspired to bring Valentine’s Day to Japan. To the detriment of Japanese women, however, there was a mistake in the translation of the marketing campaign, it is rumored. It stated that women should give chocolate to men instead of the other way around. Since then, Japanese women traditionally spend a small fortune each year on February 14th to buy chocolate not only for their spouse, but also for their male friends, colleagues, and family members.

To compensate for that, the Japanese came up with a second holiday, exactly one month after Valentine’s Day: On White Day, Japanese men are obligated to give back three times the amount to every woman they’ve received chocolate from the month before.

If you don’t intend to buy a chocolate company, I beg you, buy a dictionary.