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How to use a dictionary

Dara Wier is a poet who has taught for the University of Massachusetts Amherst MFA for Poets and Writers Program since 1985. Wier is a renowned author of more than a dozen books and has a chapbook, “THRU”, and a full-length collection, “TOLSTOY KILLED ANNA KARENINA,” forthcoming.

She’s been a Guggenheim Fellow, National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and in Spring 2020 will take up a Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, Texas.  She was married to the late poet James Tate. We remember him here»

In this piece (a version of which ran on the “Merriam-Webster” website), Wier explores her relationship with her dictionary and recommends how to use one.


I keep an unabridged Merriam-Webster Dictionary across the room from where I write. I visit it maybe 15, 20, 30 times during the course of any one-to-three-to-five-hour writing session, on average, maybe 5 days a week. If my brain—on its own—works to provide surprising combinations, associations, thoughts, images, speculations, music, moods, tones, and logic, then my dictionary—on its own—works to provide my brain with good, solid, always-relevant information and amplification. The singularity of any given word—first, how it looks, what it says, how it sounds, from where it comes; next, that word’s companion words; and last, but maybe most significant of all, random words I meet along the way.


These detours away from where I think I want to go, they might be noted as distractions, but these sometimes serendipitous, sometimes contradictory forays often turn out to be among the crucial fueling ingredients that my writing depends on for inspiration, addition, and texture.

I might think that what I want to know more about is oblivion, but what I find is the obliquity of the ecliptic and the many facets of metamorphosis, and finally forgiveness (in sense 3) with the official ignoring of offenses.

I think I need to spend some time with safari, but what arrests my attention are salient, sadomasochism, saccadic, and salad days. I think I will go learn more about coral only to learn a lot more about corollary and counterturn and coffin nail. I go from magnificence to means to marquee to maniac to distyle, ductile, hindsight, shell game, veronica, yardstick, ball field, magpie, variegated, and close shave.


My brain’s actions depend on words. Nothing much would be going on in there without them. And while I’m aware of the nebulous, ineffable, mysterious all-that-is which also makes up what passes for my consciousness (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, page 482, sense 1 a, b, and c), I never forget to worship each letter’s letting go of its individuality in service of its contribution to wording.

I will never admire sufficient to the magnificence of its character the feeling of simultaneity—coalescing, combining, and condensing that accompanies the procession of building a sequence that I eventually call a thought.

To be able to stand in that mystery—as burning, as fact, as miraculous as water, as circulation, as gravity, as the very air I breathe, as illusion, as chimera, as life sentence—to be able to stand near it, will always send me to words.


And it’s not just a unique, individual word I meet when I spend time in a dictionary. I admire and depend on the lexicographer’s careful definitions, each collection of which is any given word’s story—all those definitions telling about a word’s history, character, potential, strengths, and weaknesses. I can see if the word is stable, unstable, in flux, or in disuse, if it’s fairly expensive or economical. I can sense if it’s tricky. I can feel if it’s needy. I can sense if it’s been through the wringer of history or if it’s fairly new on earth. I can feel if a word’s been used as a weapon or a consolation. I can follow what science or medicine, romance or politics, astrophysics, alchemy, or music or farming or fishing or commerce or chivalry needs it for. It’s like when we’re asked to say who and what we are. “What do you do for a living?” says someone new to you. “Where are you from? What do you know?”