Dictionary of Fine Distinctions by Eli Burnstein [7/10]

Eli Burnstein’s Dictionary of Fine Distinctions: Nuances, Niceties, and Subtle Shades of Meaning is in that class of books you must have if the title tells you you must have it. Any serious wordsmith should consider this precise, deftly humorous presentation of a hundred slippery group of words close in meaning. Take the sixth distinction, ”Bay vs. Gulf vs. Cove,” it begins with a stylish, explanatory drawing (by cartoonist Liana Finck, whose contribution to the book is major) of: “Bays are recessed bodies of water. Gulfs are very large bays.” Then a drawing of a scrunchy tiny nodule of water, labelled “cove,” followed by: “A small bay, usually with a narrow entrance and sheltered by steep cliff walls.” It couldn’t be better expressed nor clearer. Number 32 is of similar orientation: “Harbor vs. Port vs. Marina.” Some of the distinctions proved immediately useful: I assume too much when I should be presuming (that is, with decent confidence). Others are revelatory. Who knew that ball = gala + dancing? Or that sarcasm = irony + insult? Or that monks live in monasteries, while friars don’t? I commend Dictionary of Fine Distinctions to anyone fascinated by word choice.

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