Uproarious and ingenious, Burrows’s Dictionary Stories is more than 150 shorts composed entirely from example sentences taken from 12 different dictionaries. Burrows crafts tense postapocalyptic scenarios, moody noir, fantasy, erotic science fiction, and “the double life of a freelance secret agent.” Here, Burrows delves into the most flexible words in English.
It was only a few weeks into writing Dictionary Stories that I realized the dictionary is something of a Trojan horse. Trundling up to the perimeter of your bookshelves, it presents itself as a harmless book of reference—but look inside and you’ll find it crawling with thousands upon thousands of microscopic pieces of fiction, all in the form of example sentences.
Fiction is perhaps a slightly misleading word to use in this context. Lexicographers do not write these examples from scratch in the service of whimsical narrative; they query huge corpora of texts that could include novels, news broadcasts, articles and essays, and select an example that demonstrates the most probable usage of a word. But surrounded by the neutral, instructive language of dictionary definitions, example sentences feel vital and full of personality.
The New Oxford American Dictionary contains over 80,000 examples, but it was just one (“He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery,” an example of the word “study”) that set me on the journey of collaging these sentences together to create very short stories. Should you wish to try writing stories of your own in this vein, I give you this list of some of the most versatile words the New Oxford American has to offer—or at least, words with the highest number of example sentences, any of which would make a fine start to a story*.
1. Go (128 examples)
Where better to start than with a word that signals (among many other things) a beginning or an intention. Go has 11 unique senses as a verb, 5 as a noun, and a single adjectival form (meaning to functional properly, or in example form: “all systems go”). Its examples run the gamut from sordid (“underground events where anything goes”) to nostalgic (“a golden age that has now gone for good”). Thankfully we are spared an example for the informal sense of go, meaning to urinate or defecate.
2. Run (126 examples)
Versatile as both a noun and a verb, run is another word invested with movement, be it human (“Helen ran her fingers through her hair”), animal (“the hounds are running”), or environmental (“cobbled streets run down to a tiny harbour”). Personally, I immediately want to know the story behind “’Tapestries slashed!’ ran the dramatic headline.”
3. Take (100 examples)
Take is fertile ground for those looking to write historical fiction, with examples like “twenty of their ships were sunk or taken,” “the French took Ghent,” and “the invasion took Europe to the brink of war.” Alternatively, if you’re looking to write X-Files fan-fiction, there’s always the example given for the phrase take the heat, “’Don't worry about it,’ Mulder said, ‘we'll take the heat. You can tell him we pulled rank.’”
4. Set (83 examples)
Set has no shortage of examples as a noun, verb, and adjective, but perhaps most tantalising is the one given for the phrase set someone up: “suppose Zielinski had set him up for Ingram's murder?”, which is practically half a story on a silver platter. There’s also a startlingly elegant example for set in the sense of assuming a rigid or fixed expression: “her features never set into a civil parade.”
5. Cut (76 examples)
The squeamish reader should avoid the verb form of cut at all costs. While no example is given for cut as it pertains to circumcision, you’ll find a grisly litany of injuries, from “he cut open Mackay’s face with the end of his hockey stick,” to “Barker had been cut down by a sniper’s bullet.” Though the noun form is something of an improvement (“the director’s cut,” “a cut from his forthcoming album”), you’re still not entirely safe, as evidenced by “he could skin an animal with a single cut of the knife.”
6. Stand (64 examples)
Stand might not be a heavy hitter like go or run, but its proof that sometimes you can find all the components of a story (or at least the beginning of a story) in a single entry: “After the heavy storms, only one house was left standing.” “Since mother’s death, the house had stood empty.” “Lionel stood in the doorway.”
*While you should be able to find the ingredients to a great story in any of the words given above, the truth is that it’s hard to find a page in the dictionary that doesn’t turn up something remarkable. As the saying goes, when you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s a lot easier to find it. Here’s one record of the remarkable things I found, a story from Dictionary Stories featuring an example sentence mentioned above.
Widowhood: Something to Be Glad About
She had lived alone ever since her husband died, and with the passing of the years she had become a little eccentric— a town perched on top of a hill, a town full of color and character, labyrinthine streets and alleys, smiling groves and terraces, the mountains towering all around, the setting sun throwing the snow- covered peaks into relief, the spires and clustered roofs of the old town wise beyond all others, the bricks-and-mortar banks, the palazzo built around a courtyard, the bridge across the river, the cobbled streets running down to the tiny harbor, beside the boathouse a jetty thrusting out into the water, the roar of the sea, the ringing of bells, the moon’s pale light casting soft shadows.
She made a point of taking a walk each day, through that town perched on top of a hill. This was her métier, doing things; she had no attacks of self-doubt, no second thoughts now that her mind was made up. She was alive, which was something to be glad about.
Sources: New Oxford American Dictionary, Macquarie Dictionary