Jez Burrows was looking for the simple definition of a simple word: “study.”
The New Oxford American Dictionary had said simple definition, but Burrows was immediately drawn to the word’s more complicated example sentence, buried at the bottom of the entry: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.”
“It was so melodramatic and kind of ridiculous and just made me laugh — and it just seemed like a piece of fiction,” Burrows says.
He began studying more and more example sentences within the pages of the New Oxford American Dictionary. Soon he was linking sentences to sentences to collage short stories, imbued with the same ridiculous melodrama that originally tickled him with “study.”
And so “study” became the word that started “Dictionary Stories,” Burrows’s Tumblr-turned-book. “Dictionary Stories” began as a blog compiling the NOAD’s zaniest example sentences — which Burrows then mashes up into sometimes-silly, sometimes-sad and always-interesting pieces of short fiction.
As a designer and illustrator in San Francisco, Burrows had originally envisioned the project as a single zine stapled and bound for a local zine fest.
But after posting the first story on his personal Tumblr, the notes skyrocketed — “Confessionals” was reblogged thousands of times, and soon he created an independent “Dictionary Stories” blog to share more example sentence stories.
Burrows now has an “enormous” list of interesting words to research and storify, labeled “Look these up in the future.” His creative process is simple: grab his laptop, open dictionary.app on Mac OSX and begin typing.
“I’ll generally just pick words out of the air,” he says. “It’s just a case of trolling through and saving sentences that might have the capacity to turn into a narrative. Gradually over time, the stories just sort of build up.”
When starting with a “very very vague” word, he’ll pair it with another, more specific word, to create the delightful hodgepodge of example sentences within his stories. He does not amend or alter interior sentence structure — he merely adds punctuation to string together a piece of short fiction. He has leftover sentences that, while interesting, fit nowhere of course — he’s been sharing those “fragments” on Twitter.
[Jazz] up an all-white kitchen with red tiles.
— Dictionary Stories (@dictionarystory) August 24, 2015
I can picture you in a white jacket [dismember]ing rats.
— Dictionary Stories (@dictionarystory) September 16, 2015
Slate reported that many of the example sentences in the NOAD and other dictionaries are taken from a variety of sources, including academic articles and newspaper stories chosen to showcase a given word’s application. Before he started the project himself, Burrows consulted with a lexicographer friend to learn more about real-world context for these words and their origins.
Burrows provides similar context within the individual entries on “Dictionary Stories.” Every underlined word is the original dictionary definition word that inspired his lexicographic journey, linked to the original dictionary entry for readers’ ready perusal.
Now that Dictionary Stories exists as both a successful blog and a physical book, Burrows is turning his creative sights beyond “study” and “firmament.”
“I definitely feel buoyed to do a little bit more writing after this,” he says. “But I think my anxiety will take a giant hit if I suddenly publish something of my own and I’m like, ‘This is not very good at all.’ I’m just enjoying the amount that I’m doing with other people’s sentences right now.”
Correction: A previous version of this story reported Burrows uses Dictionary.com to research example sentences. The story has since been updated to report Burrows uses the Dictionary.app on Mac OSX.
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