Dictionary and stylebook.

Why a Dictionary Should Be Your Best Friend

Sunday at Grandma’s house featured dinners with tomato “gravy,” meatballs and ravioli and reading from the dictionary. My grandparents kept their dictionary on a large wooden stand in their dining room and I would pull up a tall stool to go learn from it.

The habit of perusing the dictionary started with my introduction to newspaper reading. Whenever I came across a word I didn’t understand, I would ask my parents for its meaning and they would tell me to bring the dictionary to the kitchen table. It was an unabridged Oxford dictionary. Once I lugged out this anvil, I would continue flipping through it to better acquaint myself with the English language.

When I was a news desk editor, Merriam-Webster’s website was bookmarked on my browser and still is. Why? Perhaps I second-guess myself with spelling. Moreover, I’d rather avoid the embarrassment of not appearing to know my own mother tongue.

After all, Merriam-Webster is now known for highlighting the malapropisms of a certain leader of the Free World, including referring to “Scott Free” instead of scot-free. Graciously, Merriam-Webster referred to this gaffe as an “uncommon spelling.” Nice.

Ever received a business email with a misspelling or two? Yes, we have all been victimized by autocorrect and our constant use of cell phones increases the likelihood of such errors. So much so that it became briefly fashionable for people to disclaim in their signature line that any typos should be ignored because the email was sent from a phone. Such a glib explanation brought to mind the image of a carefree jet-setter heading to Aspen or some other glamorous locale. “I don’t care about you peons enough to check my spelling. Ta-ta!”

This is the writing equivalent of arriving at a business meeting with dirty hair and rumpled clothes. Try to at least make an effort of looking like you have self-respect and respect for those with whom you are communicating.

All that said, I have missed typos. The sting of that embarrassment never lessens.

I know what you’re thinking. You use spell-check (that is Merriam-Webster’s preferred spelling, although spellcheck and spell check are acceptable). Plus, there is that ever helpful red, squiggly line to point out the errors of your ways. True. Yet, these tools are not infallible. Befriend the dictionary. It won’t let you down.

How many times have I checked the dictionary while writing this? Multiple times. How often do you?

Katharine Fraser is a communications consultant, social media marketer and freelance writer and editor.

Words are often misused as depicted by Inigo Montoya's response to inconceivable in The Princess Bride

10 Words I Don’t Think You Know What They Really Mean

When I was a teenager, I fell prey to the awful habit of calling anything “awesome” when they were merely good things. Remember, (1) awesome means awe-inspiring. The Second Coming will be awesome. By contrast, a great pizza is not actually awesome, even if it’s truly outstanding.

Similarly, in college, the word (2) heinous came into vogue to characterize anything dreadful. A party, a class, highway traffic, bad food – all “heinous.” During visits home, my misuse of this word drove my Dad nuts. The term heinous crime is reserved for the very worst and those apparently driven by evil, such as murder. So, no matter how much you hated a particular course, the professor was not really heinous.

(3) Epic. Did you read Beowulf? That is truly epic. Because it is an epic poem. Do you know what that means? It takes a long time. A World Series commentator referred to Game 1 between the Dodgers and Astros as “epic.” On the contrary, the duration of just under two-and-a-half hours was the shortest World Series game since 1992. It could be argued that the 11-inning Game 2 was epic, but that’s still a misuse of the word.

(4) Iconic. During a high school field hockey practice, a group of alumnae showed up to visit the coach. They had been on her state championship team. We started flubbing the practice drill. The coach joked that the “icons of field hockey” made us nervous. Yes, this is a playful and correct use of the word. Icon originally meant a devotional depiction of a religious figure. This usage devolved to mean symbol, such as a computer icon or something quintessentially representative. Perhaps the Empire State Building is an icon of Art Deco architecture. But, if you watch travel shows, certain TV news and other mindlessly written broadcast content, you will be awe-inspired by how many things are epic and iconic. There is a lot of iconic food, destinations and other non-representative things mischaracterized as iconic. It’s ironic.

(5) Speaking of ironic, why on Earth do people use this word when they mean the opposite and I am not being ironic here? A lot of people seem to be intending to use the word iconic, as in representative or typical, but misspeak by using ironic. Ironic means the last thing you would expect. An example of its misuse would be a news article headline stating, “Global pollution: The ironic man-made crisis that ‘threatens the continuing survival of human societies’.” How is this ironic? If you are climate science denier, then I suppose you might find it ironic if you finally came to realize the cause and effect at play. Golly gee willikers, I suppose data does support that finding – how ironic! Um, no. Also, some people use the word ironic when they might mean sarcastic. The word ironic has morphed to indicate a form of humor or other statement, especially in appearance, such as wearing clothing or a haircut that is retro or representative of another demographic. I once spotted an African-American man wearing a motorcycle jacket with a huge Confederate flag emblazoned across the back. I did not ask him if he was intentionally being ironic to make a greater statement or if the jacket-wearing act was simply ironic on its face.

(6) Verbiage. Sigh, the misuse of this word is often compounded by mispronunciation as some users lob off a syllable to say “verb-ige.” People often use this to refer to marketing copy or contract language. But, please note it is used by wordsmiths to criticize frothy, meaningless wording. Check out the primary definition by Merriam-Webster: “a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content.” Ouch. Other than that, the dictionary’s secondary meaning is “manner of expressing oneself in words: diction.” But the example given for that use is not exactly complimentary – “sportswriters guarded their verbiage so jealously” —R. A. Sokolov – which seems to suggest they used words that are inside baseball and not useful to a larger audience.

(7) Gifted. This is not even a word. To proper past tense of the verb to give is gave. A person can be gifted (adjective) when they possess special talents. Advertisers use gifted to refer to the act of giving or receiving promotional items and gifts. It is not a verb. Just stop.

(8) Revert. The act of replying to an email is not to revert. When Cinderella’s stagecoach turned into a pumpkin at midnight, it reverted to its prior state. Perhaps you meant you would relay some information in your email, but you didn’t revert it.

(9) Task is not a verb. Some users of corporate-speak will state that they are tasking someone else with a responsibility. Task is a noun. It is close in meaning to chore. A task is something that is required, but not a lot of fun to undertake. Also, ever notice when the writer of such an email announces in a reply-all that they are tasking someone else to get something done, it suggests this act of delegation makes them very important. So, if you write that you task people, consider you sound like a condescending jerk to boot. Again, it’s not a verb.

(10) Curate. I did not curate this list. People think it’s fashionable and grand to speak of curating content or luxury goods to present them to others in a compendium or collection. Whew, that is a stretch. A museum curator is charged with specially selecting works of art in a collection. Coming up with story ideas or culling news from the web does not make one a news curator. A curate is a church figure who assists the rector. The original meaning has to do with the stewardship of souls. If you are compiling a list of hot new restaurants, and write that you curated it, then consider yourself pompous. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, look it up.

Katharine Fraser is a writer, editor and content coordinator.

Words are often misused as depicted by Inigo Montoya's response to inconceivable in The Princess Bride

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride