I just love this: Over at his blog, the writer Dave Madden points out the “word notes” in your Mac’s thesaurus which were written by David Foster Wallace. Some of them are quite hidden! For example, look up the word “beauty” in the Dictionary app, click on the “Thesaurus” button at the top, and you’ll find this “Word Note”:
pulchritude. A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adjective), colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves. —DFW
It turns out that the Mac’s thesaurus program is actually the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus—a reference book featuring idiosyncratic annotations by a number of famous writers and word-people, including David Auburn, Michael Dirda, David Lehman, Stephin Merritt, Francine Prose, Zadie Smith, Jean Strouse, David Foster Wallace, Simon Winchester and the Globe’s own Erin McKean. Here’s David Auburn’s entry on “pulchritude” (it’s filed elsewhere, under “sex appeal”):
pulchritude. While very useful as a synonym for sex appeal, it shouldn’t be understood to mean sexy in the manner of the modern desiccated zombie-eyed runway model. Indeed, it stands as a rebuke to that contemporary beauty standard, evoking as it does the plush, statuesque overabundance associated with Broadway chorines of an earlier era. As a bonus you also catch a whiff of the trying-to-be-euphemistic-but-still-vulgar vaudeville patrons ogling them.
Head on over to Madden’s blog for a list of the rest of DFW’s entries.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.