DFW Word Notes
September 2, 2012 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Apparently, David Foster Wallace's "Word Notes" from the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus show up in Mac OS X's native Dictionary app. Well, they do if you still use Snow Leopard (OSX 10.6). If you have Lion or Mountain Lion, you can browse through them here: (PDF). You can find more uncollected/unpublished DFW stuff (including pieces that will show up in the upcoming Flesh and Not Flesh essay collection) here.
posted by AceRock (24 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
A favorite tidbit:
WORD NOTES impossibly

This is one of those adverbs that's formed from an adjective and can modify only modifiers, never verbs. Using these sorts of adverbs— impossibly fast, extraordinarily yummy, irreducibly complex—is an upscale educated speech tic that translates well to writing. Not only can the adverbs be as colorful/funny/snarky as you like, but the device is a neat way to up the formality of your prose without sacrificing personality; it makes the writer sound like an actual person, albeit a classy one. The big caveat is that you can't use these special-adverb-plus-adjective constructions more than once every few sentences or your prose starts to look like it's trying too hard. -DFW
posted by AceRock at 2:05 PM on September 2, 2012 [8 favorites]

also, the upcoming essay collection is called Both Flesh and Not.
posted by AceRock at 2:11 PM on September 2, 2012

I dunno. I'm still using Snow Leopard and tried the pulchritude example from the first link and got No Entries Found.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:17 PM on September 2, 2012

Ah yeah noticed that too. Try looking up beauty in the thesaurus.
posted by AceRock at 2:19 PM on September 2, 2012

Ah. That works. Cool.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:20 PM on September 2, 2012

I'm on Mountain Lion and 'impossibly' still has the DFW note under the thesaurus entry.
posted by xmutex at 2:22 PM on September 2, 2012

On Mountain Lion, I get the DFW note under "pulchritude".
posted by Apropos of Something at 2:26 PM on September 2, 2012

A friend discovered this entirely by accident a year or so back, and I still find it completely charming. Thanks for the further info!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:34 PM on September 2, 2012

I'd rather have Bill Bryson notes.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:43 PM on September 2, 2012

Man, when DFW, inventor of the second-degree footnote, says your prose looks like it's trying too hard, you should probably take the hint.
posted by eurypteris at 2:47 PM on September 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

Do you think he was dissing Jonathan Safran Foer's book title "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"? I hope so.
posted by scose at 2:49 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

xmutex: “I'm on Mountain Lion and 'impossibly' still has the DFW note under the thesaurus entry.”

Apropos of Something: “On Mountain Lion, I get the DFW note under 'pulchritude'.”

Impossibly, they left the DFW bits in.
posted by koeselitz at 2:49 PM on September 2, 2012

I have the OAWT sitting right over there....think I'll pick it up again.
posted by Mojojojo at 2:57 PM on September 2, 2012

Love the note for feckless:

"A totally great adjective. One reason that the slippage in the meaning of effete is OK (see note at effete). is that we can use feckless to express what effete used to mean. Feckless primarily means "deficient in efficacy, lacking vigor or determination, feeble"; but it can also mean "careless, profligate, irresponsible." The word appears most often now in connection with wastoid youths, bloated bureaucracies—anyone who's culpable for his own haplessness. The great thing about using feckless is that it lets you be extremely dismissive and mean without sounding mean; you just sound witty and classy. The word's also fun to use because of the soft- e assonance and the k sound—and the triply assonant noun form is even more fun."

Feckless: It's politely derisive! Thanks DFW.

Seconding lack of pulchritude on Snow Leopard.
posted by OntologicalPuppy at 4:24 PM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Again, the Word Note for pulchritude is under the thesaurus' page for beauty. This is sort of a wonderful little surprise, and I am so pleased I haven't upgraded beyond Snow Leopard yet.
posted by obloquy at 5:26 PM on September 2, 2012

I remember seeing a word note with the initials "DFW" in dictionary.app on my shiny some years ago and had wondered at the time if said note was the work of David Foster Wallace. Or perhaps Dallas/Fort Worth. Why two Texas cities so morbidly obese in land mass and southern fried human jelly rolls that they congealed into one super city like a large man of gelatinous mass and supple girth attempting to absorb the entire universe and/or their joint international airport would pen word notes in the Oxford American Writer's Thesarus, I have no idea. I don't want to know.
posted by guiseroom at 6:01 PM on September 2, 2012

Love the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, in part because of DFW's contributions (though Zadie Smith's entries are fun to read as well). Probably the most virtuoso of Wallace's notes has to be the one for hairy. This is just a taste:

Hirsute is probably the most familiar upmarket synonym for hairy, totally at home in any kind of formal writing. Like that of many hair-related adjectives, hirsute's original use was in botany (where it means "covered with coarse or bristly hairs"), but in regular usage its definition is much more general. Not so with the noun hirsutism, though, which is still semi-medical and means having a truly pathological amount of hair and/or hair that's unusually or unevenly distributed—the point is that the noun's not really a synonym for hairiness.

The first time I read that entry, my mouth was left gaping; the man could fucking write.
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:27 PM on September 2, 2012

this is going to get me hanged--but this kind of too-clever by half, pretending to love language, but loving to be precious, kind of exactitude as a way of getting prescriptive thru the back door, completely enamored of his own genius, kind of obsessiveness, is exactly why i hate david foster wallace.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:46 PM on September 2, 2012

Well, he's dead, so he probably doesn't mind.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:52 PM on September 2, 2012

this is going to get me hanged

That's... really an unfortunate choice of words here, PinkMoose. I know you didn't mean it that way, but sheesh.
posted by davidjmcgee at 3:35 AM on September 3, 2012

I have lion and they are there for me? At least for effete which Was the first word I checked when I heard DFW had written these!
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 6:05 AM on September 3, 2012

I worked on the first edition of that thesaurus with DFW and the other well-known contributors. He made all of his contributions through correspondence, but we had gatherings with Francine Prose, Simon Winchester, Stephin Merritt, Michael Dirda, David Auburn and others in the same room at the same time. Zadie Smith also did everything from afar.

I still have a postcard from DFW here somewhere and all the email we exchanged. :)

When this "news" remade the rounds a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little anecdote about something that happened with one of the other contributors on that edition (self-link to my radio show's site).

PinkMoose, I've never met a brilliant writer who didn't stand with one foot in the pedant camp and another in the fuck-you-it's-my-English camp. It's part of the arsenal of internal conflict that make for invigorating reading on a page.
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:27 AM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Three things:

a) wow, i totally should have used different words, foot in mouth, completely.
b) i find my dislike of DFW is that he is cute about his denial of the pedant's role--and someone who taught so much, he didn't do a great job of elucidating that split.
c) the interview is great, Mo.
posted by PinkMoose at 11:30 AM on September 3, 2012

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