A link over at kottke landed me at a post by John Somers which laments the awful prose in modern dictionaries. The dictionaries most of us now use, online or built into our computers, have definitions which have been sapped of their vitality:
words are boiled to their essence. But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture. Which trains you to think of the dictionary as a utility, not a quarry of good things, not a place you’d go to explore and savor.
Somers refers to John McPhee’s essay on the essential stage of good writing where the author takes the rough hewn work and polishes into something truly beautiful, what he refers to as Draft #4:
the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.
Somers argues that in writing, an excellent dictionary—itself composed of thoughtful, vibrant, writing—is a necessary tool in this process.