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Own the Tools

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When I need to look up a word, most of the time I do it in a paper dictionary. 

I’m pretty quick at flipping to the right place, and I try to get quicker each time. However, it will never be as quick as typing the word into Google.

My switch back to paper wasn’t motivated by cantankerousness. It wasn’t a romantic thing or a hipster thing, or an “I love the smell of books” thing. I just found that after years of relying on online dictionaries, a real one offers a better experience in every way except the speed.

The whole experience is cleaner and more purposeful. A paper dictionary contains complete answers for almost any conceivable “What does this word mean” problem — and nothing else. No matter which word has you puzzled, the real dictionary has inside it a small patch of print that will perfectly solve your issue. It exists only to deliver this solution, and has no ulterior motives.

While using this tool, you will not accidentally start responding to political hot takes, or adjusting your fantasy football lineup. The paper dictionary, like a decent pen or an oven mitt, was designed to deliver only what you need in the moment you access it – knowledge of what “obtuse” or “dysphoria” mean — so that you can carry on with your work.

Its services align with your needs because you paid for it and now own it. Thus its role in your life remains clean and uncomplicated — the opposite of any tool you access through a web browser. You paid for it in the simple, transparent way we used to pay for everything: as singular purchases of single-purpose tools that aren’t trying to take anything more from you.

A Dictionary.com page is happy to provide a free definition, but it will also suggest, with half its surface area, that you consider financing a Nissan Murano this holiday season. It secretly hopes that when you open it you don’t only learn what “veritable” means, as you intended, but that you also sign up for a free trial of Adobe Creative Cloud. Its aims do not align with your own. Its loyalty, if it has any, is not to you, because unlike the stout paper dictionary on your shelf, you are not its owner.

I’ve rejected this maladaptive arrangement in favor of a real dictionary, which is better in every way except that it takes fifteen seconds to find the word instead of three.

My only regret is not realizing sooner how much I value qualities other than speed in my dictionarying – cleanliness, transparency, loyalty to my best interests, not to mention the refreshing physicality of the whole thing. I didn’t realize how much I’d given up by using the web instead, and how little was gained.

This little insight suggests a principle that we 21st-century wanderers might want to write down: whenever you can, own the tools, or you never stop paying for them.

Tool ownership is a great way to use gift cards you receive during the holidays. Instead of blowing it on something ephemeral, get a good, solid tool that will serve you for life and ask nothing in return.


This little post first appeared earlier this year on Raptitude’s Patreon page. Become a Raptitude patron today and get instant access to dozens more. You will also be helping to keep me writing Raptitude for years to come.   

Whatever you choose to do, thank you for your support this year, in every form: your letters, your comments, and your willingness to read and share my work. It has been my pleasure to bring you another year of Raptitude.

Wishing you a happy 2021,


Photo by Pisit Heng

Margaret December 24, 2020 at 10:57 am

Wonderful post! Can you recommend a good dictionary?

David Cain December 24, 2020 at 11:16 am

I’m a Pocket Oxford person

Brian December 24, 2020 at 1:45 pm

Always Oxford, never American (e.g. Merriam Webster). I use the Canadian Oxford: heftier, you get what you pay for. Instead of following links to rabbit holes, open the dictionary at random, point to a word and learn a new one (they’ll almost always be new!) Become a dictionarophile. (Try looking that one up!)

Christine Hopkins December 24, 2020 at 11:07 am

Thank you for this and all your posts this year. You’ve helped me to mostly keep my head on straight I’ve been reading you for years and I so appreciate what you do. Happy holidays and good wishes to the whole raptitude tribe.

David Cain December 24, 2020 at 11:22 am

Thanks Christine :)

NP December 24, 2020 at 11:11 am

Thank you for your work David!

David Cain December 24, 2020 at 11:23 am

Thank you for reading!

Larry December 24, 2020 at 11:12 am

So very right on target David. For many many years I used a Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, the cover had been torn off- talk about dog-eared! But I don’t ever recall that resource failing me. Additionally, I am always amazed that people don’t realize they are the product of “Free” internet services.
Thank you David for another, one of many, thoughtful and insightful editorial.
Happy Holidays and a better New Year. Larry

David Cain December 24, 2020 at 11:27 am

Thanks Larry. There’s something that feels great about using a battered book, especially when its your own hands that have given it that look.

Fiona December 24, 2020 at 11:15 am

I totally get this. Not so much with dictionaries, but I need my bird and plant ID books. When I move to a new place, I want to buy the locally-relevant ones. I know there are apps, but nothing beats a book prepared by local knowledge and insights, which I regard more as hard facts than the Internet can offer.

David Cain December 24, 2020 at 11:30 am

Ah, this reminded me of a series of North American wildlife books my family used to have. We had one for insects, one for birds, one for fish, one for mushrooms. They were pocketbook sized, and the first half was all photos and the second half was the information about each species. Just wonderful, and obviously much more useful than googling it all.

Diane Young December 24, 2020 at 1:50 pm

How can I Google a little yellow flower I just saw or an unusual bird? I would get millions of answers. A book will let me narrow it down quickly. Love books!!

Fiona December 28, 2020 at 9:03 am

Well, people do recommend various apps. Take a pic, upload it, and your phone will tell you what it is. Just not quite as fun, or assured, in my opinion. I suppose part of it is also the systemic hunt … looking for the yellow flower section, looking at the number of petals, the leaf shape, etc. This is how we learn. This is how we get to the right page in the book faster the next time.

Thanks for the additional thoughts to this, David & Diane.

Karen December 24, 2020 at 11:21 am

Talk about timely David! I am reading a book now which rivals David Foster Wallace in terms of language. I am looking up word definitions here, there and everywhere. And I am getting distracted by the internet ads and articles along my way to finding answers.. no more of that!

I will ask though – what about a dictionary app? Do you think that is another worthy solution? What are your thoughts?

Thank you for all!

David Cain December 24, 2020 at 11:32 am

Apps can be clean and single-purpose themselves, especially if you paid for it. However, they are inextricably connected to the smartphone and its attention-splitting properties. For a dictionary, a paper version can’t be beat.

Jaime G December 24, 2020 at 11:49 am

“get a good, solid tool that will serve you for life and ask nothing in return”

actually a good tool will require periodic maintenance; but that’s not a bad thing; it’s rewarding and “zen” to keep something working well; such objects, that you are familiar with, are usually far better built than the “new, next thing”, full of low-value gimmicks, which almost always is more poorly built and rarely last as long.

same principle holds true for techniques, philosophies, even people sometimes

David Cain December 24, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Good tools deserve good maintenance, and it can be a joy to provide it as a loving owner. But it won’t ask! It will just struggle on dutifully.

Beth December 24, 2020 at 12:28 pm

I find I like to do this with other activities as well. For example, I no longer turn on the TV when I’m cleaning or cooking. I’m trying to limit the pull of the talking heads and commercial. It makes what I’m doing feel so much more purposeful and meaningful.


William December 24, 2020 at 12:49 pm

Great thought! There is a lot that is traded for speed. Not always for the better.

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 1:50 pm

That was the clincher for me — realizing that speed/convenience is the only upside, and there are many downsides.

Lynn December 24, 2020 at 12:51 pm

Another great thing about dictionaries is that if you do get distracted, you will only add to your vocabulary! Loved this post!

Elizabeth M. December 24, 2020 at 1:38 pm

Just 15 seconds with a dictionary? Zig-zag, zig-zag. First I look at one thing, and then over there at another. I appreciate your point, though. It is more productive than Google, which is currently trying to sell me a Porsche. It’s a pretty little Porsche, but it isn’t happening.

Vilx- December 24, 2020 at 1:42 pm

I totally get your point and don’t expect you to change. But if you sometime don’t have your handy dictionary nearby, try checking out wordnik.com. Best online dictionary I’ve come across, and if there are ads, they’re so much out of the way that I don’t remember any.

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 1:51 pm

That is a pretty nice one!

Diane Young December 24, 2020 at 1:46 pm

I own several dictionaries – the biggest one is my Oxford Canadian Dictionary which I am reading from cover to cover (it’s in my bathroom so I do some serious reading every day). I love discovering the origins of words and finding words I didn’t know, as well as definitions for words that I thought I already knew all about. My favourite so far is: clash – coincide inconveniently….. Just tickles me!

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 1:52 pm

Wow, that is actually a great idea for a bathroom book. I don’t think I could read definitions for hours but a few here and there would be entertaining and educational. Even with words I think I know, reading the definition always teaches me something.

Steve December 24, 2020 at 2:12 pm

Not sure if it was intentional but you’ve touched on a fundamental tenet of Marxist ideology. If we do not own the means by which value is produced (tools), then the only way we can earn a living is to sell our bodies, labor & time to someone who does own those tools. In capitalist societies, the vast majority of those tools (the means of production) are owned by an increasingly small class of people (capitalists), and as the class grows smaller their power to set the price of our labor grows stronger. Wages decline and profits for corporations soar. The solution for the working class is to do as your title suggests–own the tools. Seize the means of production!

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Ah that was unintentional, but you are right. I guess its a natural thought to come to. It’s kind of a microcosm of it but it’s the same principle — in a sense a dictionary is “the means of production” if the product is knowledge of word definitions.

Thomas P Clark December 24, 2020 at 2:15 pm

“Own the tools or you’ll never stop paying for them.”

Amen to that in today’s world!

Your posts are always incisive and uplifting, David. All the best, stay healthy and Merry Christmas.


David Cain December 25, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Thanks Thomas. Same to you!

Gina H December 24, 2020 at 3:00 pm

When I started taking Vietnamese lessons in June, my Vietnamese-English dictionary was the best purchase I made. There’s a lot of serendipity in looking up words in a paper copy, especially in Vietnamese where their method of word formation makes for lots of fun. Without that serendipity I would not have found this gem: thận (kidney) + ngoại (outside) = ngoại thận (testicles aka “outside kidneys”).

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 1:57 pm

Haha! Language is so amazing. There’s nothing I would like in the world more than to be able to speak and read every language. I feel like you’d understand human beings completely if you could see all the angles language takes on describing life.

Rachel Massey December 24, 2020 at 3:23 pm

You can’t stand on a smart phone to reach the top shelf of the airing cupboard either…
Happy Christmas David, and thanks for being human.

Apollia December 24, 2020 at 4:18 pm

So many great points which I totally agree with. :-)

Fortunately, it’s possible to both have fast electronic dictionary lookup, and avoid the many problems of using dictionary websites which are closed source and/or SaaSS. (Services as a Software Substitute – https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/who-does-that-server-really-serve.html )

One of the many great creations of the GNU Project is my current favorite dictionary, the GNU Collaborative International Dictionary of English:



Despite what the 2nd link currently says, you don’t need the “gcider utility” to read the dictionary files.

You actually can read the dictionary files in any text editor you want, and use your text editor’s own built-in search capabilities to look up words.

I usually use the editor GNU Emacs with the multifiles add-on so I can have all of the dictionary files open in one tab.


Also, GNU Emacs somehow is able to open massive text files much faster than any other editor I’ve used.

Here’s more about the GNU Project and the free (as in freedom), libre software movement, which provide tons of wonderful, freedom-respecting alternatives to closed source software and to SaaSS (Services as a Software Substitute):



Happy holidays and 2021 to you and everyone!

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 1:59 pm

Thanks for this. There are definitely better electronic alternatives than dictionary.com, but none provide quite the clean offline experience of a dedicated paper book, simply because connected (or even offline) devices all have other functions that compete for our attention.

Apollia December 26, 2020 at 2:22 pm

So true! Even the handheld devices referred to as “electronic dictionaries” can contain unnecessary other functions, like a web browser, games, etc. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_dictionary

I often wish many facets of the Unix design philosophy would get more popular. One of its principles is “Do one thing and do it well”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_philosophy#Do_One_Thing_and_Do_It_Well

Unlike manual objects, it’s way too easy for digital things to be made into unnecessarily overcomplicated multi-tools.

(I was about to say “analog” instead of “manual”, but then this article convinced me otherwise: https://medium.com/@allisonjaiodell/on-manual-analog-and-digital-objects-d26e591528ff )


That said, I’m still a fan of GNU Emacs, despite its somewhat ludicrous capabilities beyond just text editing – including Tetris, IRC chat, and web browsing, among many other things. :-) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Emacs#Extensibility

Fortunately, GNU Emacs is so customizable, it’s probably possible to disable every potential distraction within GNU Emacs. But then there’s the unavoidable fact that GNU Emacs must be run on a computer – one of the greatest sources of distraction humanity has ever created.

I’m on my computer probably way too much overall, so it’s good to be reminded of the many virtues of manual, non-digital objects. Thanks. :-)

Erling December 24, 2020 at 5:24 pm


sd December 24, 2020 at 6:11 pm

“whenever you can, own the tools, or you never stop paying for them”….definitely! Everyone wants you to sign up for a subscription to anything they figure they can get paid for. They do not want you to be able to own/read any of their intellectual property unless you continue to pay them, over and over for the privilege to do so.

It is with this that I find the end of your article quite amusing.
“This little post first appeared earlier this year on Raptitude’s Patreon page. Become a Raptitude patron today and get instant access to dozens more. You will also be helping to keep me writing Raptitude for years to come.” …….sure….I should pay you forever. LOL.

No harm, no foul. I’m a Camp Calm/Camp Calm Relax subscriber, so I’ve given you plenty of dough already, and I dig your stuff. ;) Cheers!

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 2:04 pm

“They do not want you to be able to own/read any of their intellectual property unless you continue to pay them, over and over for the privilege to do so.”

Really? Raptitude and the 500+ articles in its archives are free, and obviously I do want people to read them.

Patreon is a voluntary option for people who want to contribute to the cost of the site. A small percentage of subscribers take this option, and I offer rewards for those who do. Most readers don’t and that’s okay. You don’t have to explain why.

Tom December 24, 2020 at 6:34 pm

Yes! Dictionaries are immutable. New word definitions are politics, as everything seems to be to many people today. Cut through the propaganda with the written word.

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 2:07 pm

Agreed, although politics does extend to dictionaries, which is why I don’t recommend Merriam-Webster. They’ve started redefining words according to radical post-modern trends that don’t represent the majority of usage cases. That’s a can of worms though…

woollyprimate December 29, 2020 at 10:50 am

Just say no to PoMo!

Shana December 29, 2020 at 11:03 pm

Words change over time. That’s why it’s challenging to read Chaucer in the original, why Shakespeare’s English was seen as innovative, and why we slowly moved from “clove” to “cleft” to “cleaved” as past tense verb forms. The risk of adhering to a single written version (e.g., Webster’s International Third, often used as a foundational source), is that it fails to account for gradual changes in words over time. For instance, the word “pollute” had a largely sexual context before the 1970s, when it grew to encompass our modern environmental context.

All that is to say, buying a dictionary, in particular, does not provide the one-and-done purchase you describe, particularly as our language evolves over time. Just check out the monthly list of new words issued by the Oxford English Dictionary! https://public.oed.com/updates/

G J Amber December 25, 2020 at 8:53 am

Thank you for putting into coherent words the way I feel about my dictionary and other books. Your principle of owning is mind-blowing. Now I know why I prefer my herb books and bird books. I wonder how I could apply this to the rest of my life.

Mason December 25, 2020 at 12:37 pm

I’ve become a big fan of the “alignment of interests” concept – works so well in terms of knowing who/what to trust.

But I hadn’t really thought of the alignment concept for web pages – at least not so clearly as you put it here. Thanks for another little epiphany!

André December 25, 2020 at 12:41 pm

“Own the tools, or you never stop paying for them. That being said, don’t forget to never stop paying me in patreon.”

Well well…

David Cain December 25, 2020 at 2:09 pm

Patreon is exactly what allows this site to be free of Nissan Murano ads and other outside interests compromising the content. It’s the best system for sustaining this site I can think of.

Apollia December 26, 2020 at 2:24 pm

I’ve enjoyed your blog for years, and I’m glad to see you make so much money via Patreon every month. You definitely deserve all that support, and much more!

I’ve thought many times about joining Patreon, but I think I’ll be a lot happier with GNU Taler instead, whenever that’s finally ready to use:


Anna December 26, 2020 at 3:55 am

Happy Christmas David!!! Thank you so much for all your work and thought that you put into all your writings. You deserve to be able to make a very good living from this because you bring about such change in the people who read it. Your articles as i have said before have completely changed my life and those around me. Only the other day i got a friend into the konmarie method of cleaning (article i read about in one of your articles) and now she wants to be a professional organiser (just one of hundreds of examples).
Look forward to reading you in the new year!! :-)

Michael December 26, 2020 at 8:57 am

The early days of the dictionary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ink_and_Incapability

Michael December 26, 2020 at 8:58 am
Destiny December 28, 2020 at 2:00 am

Paper dictionaries really are better than the ones in the internet. I just love the smell of books!! Happy holidays!!

Gonzalo December 29, 2020 at 9:07 am

David: ¡muchas, muchas, muchas gracias por compartir tu sabiduría con nosotros! ¡Que tengas muy feliz año 2021! All best for you, friend!

Catherine B December 29, 2020 at 3:22 pm

When I was in elementary school (over 50 years ago) we were sent home with the dreaded school supply list. Dreaded, because my mum (herself an elementary school teacher in a different school) took issue with the lists. 12 HB pencils, sharpened? Ridiculous!, 12 lined Hilroy scribblers? Hogwash! New pencil crayons again! Why not use last year’s set? As a child who liked to simply blend in, I found this embarrassing. I just wanted to show up at school with the same stuff as everyone else. But most of my dear mother’s vitriol was reserved for the choice of dictionary on the list. Her children were NOT going to school with rubbish dictionaries with names like Webster’s or Funk and Wagnalls! Only Oxford dictionaries would do. This caused me much misery. Nothing could I say to persuade her to buy one of those other ones.
So off we went with our dark blue hardcover Oxford dictionaries. Of course, mum was right. I grew to love my OED. I spent hours lying on my stomach on my shag-rug covered bedroom floor reading it. When I went to university, I bought myself a bigger version. And when my daughter had “dictionary” on her school supply list, you can guess what I did. Sent her with the “wrong” one as well. A few years ago, my sisters and I had to clean out my darling mum’s flat after she passed away. Imagine my joy when I discovered a 2 volume set of the “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary”. This “shorter set” is huge and must weigh at least 10 pounds. Thank you, Mum.

Kevin Patrick McDermott December 29, 2020 at 11:35 pm

David, the answer is an nternet enabled assistant. I like Google Assistant with Google Home devices. Dictionaries and encyclopedias and logophilic people are awesome, but so is speed and accuracy with zero distractions in the task. Great topic.

Justin December 30, 2020 at 9:31 pm

Yes, the pocket Oxford. Does anyone else like looking up a word of the day and trying to find a way to use it? Or is this just way too nerdy?

Pedro January 11, 2021 at 7:03 pm

Hello David!

I’m Pedro from Brazil, and I really liked your old text about internet activists. Here in Brazil we’re so polarized that it’s sad, it’s only hate everywhere you go and talk about politics and other things.

I’m asking for your permission to translate your text to Portuguese and replicate it everywhere I can. I’m not media or anything, just someone who feels like your message should get to more people.

Thank you!

David January 12, 2021 at 1:43 pm

Hi Pedro. That would be okay with me. Just please keep it intact and link to the original. Send me a message at raptitude.com/contact when it is up. Thanks!

Jesse Rantakangas March 16, 2021 at 2:42 pm

” whenever you can, own the tools, or you never stop paying for them.”
that one line is a gold mine of new thoughts, i wrote it on my journal, “wisdom list” and “stuff to think about” list ! thank you

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