You’re probably using the wrong dictionary, James Somers suggests:
The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.
Indeed, if you look up those particular words in the dictionary that comes with your computer — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian:
example /ig?zamp?l/, n. a thing characteristic of its kind or illustrating a general rule.
sport /spôrt/, n. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.
magic /?majik/, n. the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.
Here, 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.
Worse, the words themselves take on the character of their definitions: they are likewise reduced. A delightful word like “fustian” — delightful because of what it means, because of the way it looks and sounds, because it is unusual in regular speech but not so effete as to be unusable, is described, efficiently, as “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” Not only is this definition (as we’ll see in a minute) simplistic and basically wrong, it’s just not in the same class, English-wise, as “fustian.” The language is tin-eared and uninspired. It’s criminal: This is the place where all the words live and the writing’s no good.
The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at dictionary.com: they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.
John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is 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.
The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.
“Your destination is the dictionary,” he writes.
The dictionary McPhee went to was Webster’s — just not the modern one:
You can see why it became cliché to start a speech with “Webster’s defines X as…”: with his dictionary the definition that followed was actually likely to lend gravitas to your remarks, to sound so good, in fact, that it’d beat anything you could come up with on your own.
Take a simple word, like “flash.” In all the dictionaries I’ve ever known, I would have never looked up that word. I’d’ve had no reason to — I already knew what it meant. But go look up “flash” in Webster’s (the edition I’m using is the 1913). The first thing you’ll notice is that the example sentences don’t sound like they came out of a DMV training manual (“the lights started flashing”) — they come from Milton and Shakespeare and Tennyson (“A thought flashed through me, which I clothed in act”).
You’ll find a sense of the word that is somehow more evocative than any you’ve seen. “2. To convey as by a flash… as, to flash a message along the wires; to flash conviction on the mind.” In the juxtaposition of those two examples — a message transmitted by wires; a feeling that comes suddenly to mind — is a beautiful analogy, worth dwelling on, and savoring. Listen to that phrase: “to flash conviction on the mind.” This is in a dictionary, for God’s sake.
And, toward the bottom of the entry, as McPhee promised, is a usage note, explaining the fine differences in meaning between words in the penumbra of “flash”:
… Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.
Did you see that last clause? “To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.” I’m not sure why you won’t find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won’t. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: “glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface .”
Somers points us in the right direction:
The closest thing you can get to a plain-text, easily hackable, free, out-of-copyright version of the dictionary McPhee probably used is Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828).