If you are at all obsessive, I’m sure you know well the gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction that arises when something just isn’t right. For me, that something is often a problem of knowledge: something I don’t know, something I can’t figure out, or (worst of all) something I’ve forgotten. It can strike without warning, a whim of iron that crowds out all other thought until it is satisifed.
Over time, one develops a pattern of strategies for dealing with the most common of these eventualities. Chief among my precautions, I try to make sure that I’m never more than arm’s length from a dictionary. Even for words I know, I am often seized by the need to verify shades of connotation.
Ah, dictionaries. Having the right edition at hand is indispensable.
I have little good to say about the standard American dictionaries. The glib banalities of Merriam-Webster and American Heritage only reinforce the apathy of most students toward the treasure-house of language. We shall speak of them no more.
More pleasingly, consider the OED. The full, twenty-volume edition is, alas, horrifically expensive and unwieldy. The single-volume, photo-reduced, Compact OED is too crabbed and inacessible to be a pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, you need a copy of the OED, but find yourself a copy of the older, two-volume Compact with only four pages-per-page. Despite its necessity, the OED is not for quick reference; its dark vortex will suck you into the fifty near-variants of a single word, leading to an afternoon of scholarly enjoyment that is incompatible with actually finishing whatever writing task you were previously attempting to complete.
Allow me to commend to you the best single-volume English dictionary for ready reference: the Chambers, which is an unmitigated pleasure. It is accessible, engaging, and playful without sacrificing the richness of linguistic history. Consider, for example, the entry for weasel words:
weasel words plural noun words used to deliberately make statements evasive or misleading.
Etymology: Early 20c: such words suck the meaning out of neighbouring words in the way a weasel sucks the contents out of an egg, leaving the shell empty.
One skates stutteringly through the Chambers, tripping on something interesting a dozen times on your way to your goal, building a ramified stack of serendipitous discoveries to trace down.
A final, minatory note: avoid the disappointments of the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary and the Pocket Chambers. The Chambers 21st Century is sadly vitiated, stripped of the most pleasing archaisms and much of its character. The Pocket Chambers is simply pointless, as it chooses to omit any word for which you might actually need a definition.