May 24th, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions”

This technique was inspired by the Oulipo‘s n+7 technique. I call it “dictionary expansion,” and it’s a quick and simple way to generate massive amounts of text.

First, you need an ordinary sentence:

The cat wants to jump up on the table.

Next, you replace whichever words in that sentence that you like with their dictionary definitions. For now, let’s just do the nouns—although note that you can do this with any word and part of speech:

The small domesticated carnivore, bred in a number of varieties, wants to jump up on the article of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike top supported on one or more legs or other supports.

And that’s it! (I told you it was simple—so simple that I doubt I’m the only one to have devised it.)

The technique is of course recombinant, and can get out of control rather quickly:

The small domesticated animal that eats flesh, bred in a number of kinds or sorts, wants to jump up on an individual object of movable articles such as tables, chairs, desks or cabinets, required for use or ornament in a house, office, or the like, and consisting of a flat, slablike uppermost or upper part or surface and supported on one or more somethings resembling or suggesting in use, position, or appearance a leg or other something that serves as a foundation, prop, brace, or stay.

And again:

The small domesticated member of the kingdom Animalia, that has a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, and that can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and that has a sensory and nervous system that allows it to respond rapidly to stimuli, and that out of preference or nutritional necessity eats the soft substance of humans or other animal bodies (said substance consisting of muscle and fat), and that is bred in a number of classes or groups of individual objects, people, animals, etc. of the same nature or character and that are thus classified together because they have traits in common—that member wants to jump up on an individual thing that is visible or tangible and that is relatively stable in form, and what’s more is movable—such as a seat, especially for one person, usually having four legs for support and a rest for the back and often having rests for the arms—or an article of furniture having a broad, usually level, writing surface, as well as drawers or compartments for papers, writing materials, etc.—or a a piece of furniture with shelves, drawers, etc., for holding or displaying items—or even a table—and that is required for use or ornament in a building in which people live, or a room, set of rooms, or building where the business of a commercial or industrial organization or of a professional person is conducted, or the like, consisting of a flat, slablike uppermost or upper portion or division of a whole that is separate or distinct, or rather an outermost or uppermost layer or area, and that is in its totality supported on one or more somethings resembling or suggesting in use, position, or appearance either of the two lower limbs of a biped, as a human being, or any of the paired limbs of an animal, arthropod, etc. that support and move the body, or some other something that serves as the basis or groundwork of anything, such as a stick, or a rod, or a pole, or a beam, or any other rigid support that imparts rigidity or steadiness by holding parts together or in place, such as a clasp, or a clamp, or a bracket, or a lock, or a nipper.

Indeed, you could write a whole book using nothing but this technique! I thought once of doing so, but lost interest. Instead, I simply used the technique here and there to mess with some sentences, although not in anything I ever published.

This is, of course, pure defamiliarization, not unlike Tolstoy’s story narrated from the point of view of a horse.

See also:

& enjoy!

Update 1: A variation, inspired by the comments: with each iteration, change dictionaries, moving between maximally different ones (e.g., a children’s dictionary vs. a college dictionary).

Update 2: Related posts:

Tags: , , , ,


  1. Joseph Thomas

      The first approach is already a Oulipo technique … I don’t have the compendium handy, or I’d look it up. But Harry Mathews has an example of it here:

      Search for this text:
      Third translation: At this place and time exists the goddess of love identified with the Greek Aphrodite, without reservation taking firm hold of her creature hunted and caught.Explanation: each word has been replaced by its dictionary definition.

  2. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      This one irritates me a little bit, but I could see using it to generate some new language that you then fuck with further. 

  3. A D Jameson

      Leave it to Harry Mathews to anticipatorily plagiarize me!

      I must have seen this idea there, because I copy-edited that book. I guess I forgot about it, then rediscovered it!

  4. A D Jameson

      Yeah, as always, you can do whatever you want with it. Like that long last paragraph, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be revised in any direction one preferred. I fiddled with it the punctuation and even the definitions themselves, here and there, to make it more readable.

  5. A D Jameson

      We can always do whatever we want! I like using techniques and generative constraints—and even forms—to suggest things, not to be absolute and ironclad.

  6. postitbreakup

      guarantee you you could sell a book of these things a d j

  7. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Would like to see this applied to some sort of algorithm and presented as a visual piece. Change colors of text depending on what cycle of dictionary expansion they are a part of. Could be kaleidoscopic.

  8. A D Jameson

      Someday I will write my definitive writing manual!

  9. A D Jameson

      Sounds like you have a summer project…

  10. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Maybe! Not much of a computer wiz. But maybe!

  11. A D Jameson

      Me neither.

  12. Anonymojo

      It sounds like it would be ultimately fractal – a linguistic Mandelbrot set where the function’s ‘products’ are bound by some particular actual dictionary/ies — because all the words in each dictionary definition are themselves defined… in that dictionary.

  13. A D Jameson

      That suggests an interesting variation: hopscotch across different dictionaries! For maximal variation, use wildly different ones (a college dictionary vs. a children’s dictionary, etc.).

  14. Anonymojo

      It’s pleasant and even healthy to be reminded that we can do whatever we want.  (–also somewhat true.)

      But is there a goal to or reason for the strategery?  Is there a text or even an inspiration shortage?

      …just asking – probably hypocritically, as there’re play-generators that I enjoy, like sports, chess, etc., that have no big ‘goals’.

  15. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Could it be fractal if it was constrained to a paragraph shape, though? I could see it maybe visually becoming a fractal if definitions branched out from the original sentence, but if it was sticking to the typical linear order/format of writing, I think, visually, it’d just look like a big block of text? Unless the colors of the different text created a fractal within the universe of the text block…? Math, it has been a while. Either way it could be fun.

      Someone email the guy who does xkcd, I’m sure he could produce this in a day. But don’t let him see this comment, because most of what I just said is probably wrong.

  16. A D Jameson

      Interesting question. A big goal, no, I think not. There’s no telos, if that’s what you’re asking.

      If one is writing then one needs to generate text somehow and there are many ways to do and reasons why one does it. Whether a technique or reason is good depends on the context. But in a broad sense any technique or reason is as good as any other. I like using different techniques—changing the way I write—because I like writing many different things. For me, the process always impacts the end result, either directly or indirectly.

      Also, I just like making up different ways to generate texts, regardless of whether I use them or not.

  17. A D Jameson

      Dear guy who does xkcd,

      Please produce for us an algorithm that substitutes words in a text for their dictionary definitions (any dictionary), and that also changes the colors of the words when they change. We think it could be kaleidoscopic.

      Not Frank Tas, the Raptor, nor A D Jameson, either

  18. Anonymojo

      Well, the text would be, say, paragraph-blocked — as an image fractally generated has, at its differentiating, ‘crumbling reformward’ edge, a hard line at any particular moment.  So the cat sentence in Adam’s blogicle: each stage leafier, but the organism at no moment infinitely leafy (though infinitely foliated leaves are suggested processurally).

      Not sure how to translate the text into shapes and colors — some arbitrary associative rules? parts of speech, syntactic connections, letters themselves each given a ‘look’?

      Again, argumentatively (as above), I wonder:  what’s gained by making images this way? as opposed to just drawing pitchers?

  19. reynard

      other good ways to generate text are having a life & fetishizing words

  20. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Each cycle would produce different words, and the words produced in each cycle would be of a different color/shape. For example, I can’t alter colors here, but visually akin to this:

      The cat wants to jump up on the table.


      I think what’s gained by making images this way is, hm, perspective? It’s a unique approach to something, it’s fun to throw art into a structured machine and seeing what results, sort of like spin art.

  21. Anonymojo

      I thought, right after I posted, that what might be gained is a beautiful thing.

      (–as well as indulgence in a non-destructive way to spend pre-death time.)

  22. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Yes, those things, as well, “A momentary diversion on the road to the grave.”

  23. A D Jameson

      The technique described above is hardly incompatible with that. Indeed, it is that.

  24. reynard

      i can see why you maybe think that is that but i also think that what i meant is actually not

  25. Anonymous

      academia is a beast

  26. A D Jameson

      I can see why you maybe think it is not that but I also think that what I mean is actually…is.

  27. A D Jameson

      Put less snarkily, I came up with this idea (which is truly, I think, an idea) by reading a book, talking with other writers, walking around some, looking through a dictionary in a cafe while drinking a coffee, going on another walk, and then sitting down and trying it out. The whole time I was fetishizing words. All of which seems to fit your general qualifications…?

      And sure there are other ways to generate texts; there are infinite ways. Seems to me it’s fun to try out lots of them, to explore lots of different ways of living and writing.

      Then when we die we can tell God we did a lot of different things! He’ll be happy I think.

  28. reynard

      do you really think you know what god would think of things

  29. A D Jameson

      Do you really take everything literally?

      Hey, if it makes me look any better in your wizened eyes, I had this writing idea while living in Bangkok, having invaluable life experiences that gave me the legitimacy you seem to require someone has in order to write things. Don’t fret, man: I spent the requisite number of hours “communing with the Buddha.”

  30. reynard

      i am just annoyed by all this cheesedickery

      the fact that you think i’m talking about you says a lot about you, as you know other people have had / do have these ideas about ‘generating text’ or appropriating content or collage or whatever & i feel the same about all of it, it’s probably one of the only ways that i am ‘conservative,’ i totally get the idea of seeing words in a different context as a way of finding them anew but i’m more interested in w.c.w.’s view of that situation than kenneth goldsmith’s, as my grandmother used to say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ this kind of stuff is the literary equivalent of auto-tune

  31. Bobby Dixon

      i am just slightly angry, irritated by all this dumb ass/fooling around in general

      the  thing that is indisputably the case that you think i’m engaging in speech about you says a lot about you, as you know other people have had / do have these thoughts or suggestions as to possible courses of action about a ’cause to arise or come about written or printed work, regarded in terms of its content rather than its physical form’ or take for one’s own use (typically w/out the owner’s permission) content or a form of art in which various materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric are arranged and stuck to a backing or whatever & i feel the identical/not different/unchanged about all of it, it’s probably one of the only ways that i am ‘holding to traditional attidutes and values and cautious about change or innovation,’ i totally have or to hold the idea of seeing words in a different context as a way of finding them in a new or different, typically positive, way, but i’m more interested in w.c.w.’s view of that situation than kenneth goldsmith’s, as my the mother of my father or mother used to say ‘if it is not completely run out of money, don’t fasten it securely,’ this kind of stuff is the literary equivalent of  an audio processor created by Antares Audio Technologies


  32. James Tadd Adcox

      Adam. Love it.

  33. A D Jameson

      Living life and having experiences and ideas and writing about them because you love words and love to write—that’s all perfectly well and good. I like to think that’s exactly the kind of person I am, and the kind of person that most of the fine participants at HTMLGIANT are. (Why would we be here, otherwise?) But let’s pretend you live the most amazing life on earth (whatever that would mean)—what good does that bit of wonder do you if, when you sit down to write, you churn out the most cliched, hackneyed shit on the planet?

      It’s useful to have ways to see and generate language anew because that is what it takes to make language register as something visceral—for it to escape cliche and familiar patterns, for it to have force. So maybe for one hour of the day, on one day of the week, or even just one day of the month, there’s time and room and permission enough for a silly little technique like the one I’ve described above? The rest of the time writers can sprawl out under the olive trees and entertain the Muses.

      Not to mention, any tool can be used artistically, even Auto-Tune:

      I now believe, reynard, that I’ve said all I have to say on this matter to you. But before I sign off, permit me to confess that, based on your comments here, you strike me as an entirely boring person who has neither ideas nor any ability whatsoever to write an interesting sentence. (While your second paragraph above is quite a step up from “do you really think you know what god would think of things”—congratulations!—I had to reread your second paragraph three more times than twice before I began to think I understood what it meant. So you still need more practice—but keep trying! You’ll get there!) But what’s more—and more unfortunate—is that your evident lack of talent with the language is exceeded only by your complete lack of humor, which is surpassed only by your total lack of any personal quality I would call pleasant. So maybe your own writing advice doesn’t work, hmm?

      Or maybe you should try being more open-minded and, you know, just plain sheer fucking friendly, you catachrestic Victorian platitudinous vulgarian.

  34. A D Jameson
  35. A D Jameson

      Tadd. Love you. Especially if you bring be a souvenir!

  36. A D Jameson

      This is much better than my reply. Well done.

  37. reynard

      You had trouble reading that paragraph because you don’t know how to read my comment style. You seem to think there is only one way to write / communicate / make jokes; and if something doesn’t fall into that category, it is bad. Your jokes are lame. You seem to think the world revolves around you, that you are special. You are shit. I am shit. I am not a kind person—I am, indeed, a vulgarian. I am also a kindergarten teacher and a contributor to this blog. Other sorts of people exist. We aren’t all ass-munchers looking for our next ego meal you fucking chump. This Kanye video is not artistry; it’s a turd disguised as an expensive pickle on fine china, laid out with impeccable presentation in a restaurant that burned down in the mid-90s and is somehow still smoldering. I did not mean to suggest that you do not have a life—honestly, I do not care about your life. What I do care about is the idea that generating text is the same thing as writing it. The idea that people will automatically produce cliched work without some kind of tool is ridiculous. The fact that you thought I was referring to your life, or lack thereof, suggests (to me) that you are far more concerned with your own image than you are with ideas. The fact that you would go on to judge me based on the content of a couple of comments says, again, a lot about you, not me—not to mention the fact that you probably don’t actually read this website (probably because you are too busy jacking off in the mirror); you just want to promote your own work. We live in different paradigms. 

      I tried to attach my CV to this comment, but anyway it’s just an instagram of an etchasketch that says “Animals are a reproductive strategy written by plants under the sun’s duress.”

  38. A D Jameson

      This is a lot more interesting, to be sure, although I have no idea where most of it is coming from. You seem to be angry about any number of things, and I still detect a distinct lack of humor. But if it makes you feel better to rage away at me, by all means feel free.

      (Have we ever met? Have you actually read anything I’ve written besides this post? You seem to think you know a great deal about me. Perhaps you’re my new downstairs neighbor, the one I’m certain keeps listening when I jack off in front of my mirror.)

      Well, maybe we can be friends, after all. I sent you a Twitter follow request; I couldn’t find you anywhere else.


  39. A D Jameson

      And I’ve looked at your posts at this site, I just didn’t make the connection. You use a different gravatar for your comments than in your author section, and have omitted your last name here. There are, like, a lot of people even in this tiny online world.

  40. Theory of Prose & better writing (ctd): The New Sincerity, Tao Lin, & “differential perceptions” | HTMLGIANT

      […] … and in many other places as well, such as the Oulipo-inspired technique I wrote about last week, “dictionary expansions.” […]

  41. Another way to generate text #5: “synonym clusters” | HTMLGIANT

      […] Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions” […]

  42. Another way to generate text #5: “synonym clusters” | HTMLGIANT

      […] Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions” […]

  43. Another way to generate text #6: “word splitting” | HTMLGIANT

      […] Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions” […]

  44. A very pure example of deceleration: “Atomization” | HTMLGIANT

      […] Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions” […]

  45. Another way to generate text #1: “The Spell Check Technique” | HTMLGIANT

      […] Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions” […]

  46. Another way to generate text #2: “backmasking” (now with bonus Batman/Beatles content) | HTMLGIANT

      […] Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions” […]

  47. Another way to generate text #7: Gysin & Burroughs vs. Tristan Tzara | HTMLGIANT

      […] Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions” […]